Short Take: Then They Came For The Farmers

Having already told the tale of civil asset forfeiture from back in the bad old days, when it was only going to be used against drug kingpins to “take the profit out of crime,” and even if people didn’t adore it (they did), they didn’t oppose it, there’s a certain amusement to the retelling of Randy Sowers’ travails.

Strapped with pistols and carrying government IDs, two Treasury agents walked onto a Maryland farm on a cold winter morning in 2012, and asked for the owner – Randy Sowers. It was a blur of badges and questions, but Sowers’ four-year legal nightmare was only just beginning. “My story could belong to any farmer or business owner,” Sowers says. “People have almost no idea what the feds will do when they want to hurt you. What kind of power-hungry bureaucrats do we have when guilt or innocence plays no role in the system?”

No, there is nothing funny about what happened to Sowers. What is funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, is his belief that “people have almost no idea what the feds will do when they want to hurt you.” On the contrary, “people” know exactly what they’ll do. Maybe Sowers didn’t. Maybe the people Sowers knows didn’t. Maybe the nice folks at AgWeb didn’t. But “people” did.

Sowers was caught in the hooks of a law intended to capture crime lords and money launderers, and tagged with a bank deposit breach—a paperwork infraction with a sledgehammer penalty.

That’s how laws are sold to the public, that they may be outrageously harsh and unfair, but they won’t be used on good people like you, just bad people like the people who are called bad named like “crime lords” and, well, money launderers isn’t really all that bad, but since Sowers wasn’t one, it didn’t matter.

Although the Frederick County producer wasn’t suspected of drug dealing, tax evasion, or criminal enterprise, Internal Revenue Service investigators wedged Sowers into a legal vise with almost no chance of escape. Sowers’ wife had made a series of bank deposits—all less than $10,000 cash and gleaned from farmers’ markets—and in response, IRS was baying for proverbial blood. “They seized almost $70,000 of our money, had us scared and thinking we were going to prison, and maybe losing all we’d worked for,” Sowers explains. “Roll over and shut up—that’s the game I was supposed to play.”

There’s nothing unusual about this. Sowers’ wife engaged in what the feds would call “smurfing,” breaking up larger amounts of cash deposits into smaller amount to fall under the $10,000 requirement for the completion of an Unusual Currency Transaction form, which the bank would immediately send off to the feds to cover their butt and curry favor.

Sowers wasn’t guilty of anything? It was money from farmers’ markets? Okay. I totally believe, but here’s the thing: regardless of whether it came from selling heirloom tomatoes to women named Karen because they would never pay extra to purchase tomatoes called “tasty but ugly and deformed,” the feds get to sweep in and glom up the money and make its target fight for its return. It’s crazy, sure, but it’s just as crazy for the guy selling meth as the Randy Sowers.

Except AgWeb, et al., is suddenly shocked when it happens to a good, law-abiding, salt-o’-the-earth farmer like Sowers, but didn’t give a hoot when it happened to some guy the feds called a “money launderer.” After all, Sowers is a farmer, and while it’s fine, if not commendable, for the feds to use this absurdly unfair system when taking down the bad dudes, it’s completely wrong when it’s used against a farmer. How is it possible that “people have almost no idea” about this?

27 thoughts on “Short Take: Then They Came For The Farmers

    1. SHG Post author

      When the feds seize all their funds, there’s no money to retain counsel. These aren’t contingent fee cases.

      1. B. McLeod

        These probably get lumped with tax cases, in which the government has declared such fee arrangements unethical.

          1. Kathryn Kase

            Based on the above exchange, the list of “people [who] have almost no idea” of asset forfeiture laws includes at least one reader of your blog. I believe you now get to ask Mr. McLeod how it is possible that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

            1. B. McLeod

              It isn’t as though people haven’t successfully fought these “structuring” cases, represented by counsel.

  1. Grant

    I read the story and see the teller told the wife to deposit less than $10,000 so they didn’t have to do paperwork.

    Sue the bank! (Assuming the story is credible.)

  2. Pedantic Grammar Police

    “the feds get to sweep in and glom up the money and make its target fight for its return”

    Not anymore they don’t.

    Or is Bennett confused when he writes that, because of this case and others like it, and the efforts of the Institute for Justice, the IRS is no longer allowed to seize money without evidence of a crime?

    “The RESPECT Act officially restricts forfeiture to currency structuring instances involving illegal activity.”

      1. MelK

        Vetoing a bill that passed congress unanimously would be a … special … gift to his party in the face of the coming election. But this is still a rabbit hole too far.

        1. SHG Post author

          This comment reflects very poorly on you, your bias and your being grossly disingenuous. I just want you to know that.

    1. SHG Post author

      Putting aside that the IRS is one of a great many alphabet agencies that use structuring, will it? I have enormous respect for IJs work, but huge issues remain. We shall see. And while this statutory is change is great, it’s adorable how people believe that the problem is suddenly “solved.”

      1. B. McLeod

        In virtually every case against the IRS (excluding only criminal charges and some civil penalties) the law casts the citizen as petitioner or plaintiff and places upon the citizen the burden of overcoming the presumptive reasonableness and regularity of the government’s conduct. Forfeitures based on alleged “structuring” were simply another application of this longstanding model.

      2. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Out of all the organizations begging me for spare change, IJ is one of the very few that I donate to, because they have made things better for people like me. It’s true that forfeiture still takes place in other areas, but IJ is chipping away at the problem, and I have hope that they will eventually prevail.

        It’s a bit surprising that Trump signed the RESPECT act because he appears to have a childlike misunderstanding of what forfeiture is and how it works.

        THE PRESIDENT: So what do you do? So in other words, they have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it. So who gets it? What happens to it? Tell them to keep it?
        MR. BOENTE: Well, we have what is called equitable sharing, where we usually share it with the local police departments for whatever portion that they worked on the case. And it was a very successful program, very popular with the law enforcement community.
        THE PRESIDENT: And now what happens?
        MR. BOENTE: Well, now we’ve just been given – there’s been a lot of pressure not to forfeit, in some cases.
        THE PRESIDENT: Who would want that pressure, other than, like, bad people, right? But who would want that pressure? You would think they’d want this stuff taken away.

        1. SHG Post author

          So we’re now two steps away from the post by your injecting IJ’s good works into the picture, then a third step about Trump’s ignorance of forfeiture, and you’re probably wondering why I allow non-lawyers to comment here. Me too. And I’m in the mood at the moment to fix that problem with extreme prejudice.

            1. SHG Post author

              People keep telling me I’m too nice about posting comments. Except the people who tell me I’m a bastard. The things that non-lawyers don’t really understand is that there are a lot of lawyers lurking here, and they really appreciate my not letting things get out of control.

            2. Atty Lurker

              I, for one, enjoy and appreciate your videos, GD. I sometimes get a laugh out of the non-lawyer comments, but more often than not, would prefer some of the crazier nonsense find a home elsewhere. Just my 2 cents.

            3. Alex S.

              I think it’s part of SHG’s strategy to occasionally get lax about comments so the rest of us remember how much shit he shovels on a daily basis. Is it time for backrubs with a backhand included so he doesn’t have to castigate himself?

          1. Pedantic Grammar Police

            If it was such a shitty comment, why did you post it? Was I twisting your arm too hard?

            1. Charles

              Deterrence is a beautiful thing. And unfortunately, because of new visitors (see XKCD’s Rule of Today’s 10,000), it has to be repeated. If all the bad comments are trashed, that only will encourage thousands more that need to be trashed. Remember, we never have to look at the control panel. I’ve heard it’s awful.

    2. Black Bellamy

      “The RESPECT Act officially restricts forfeiture to currency structuring instances involving illegal activity…such as interfering with interstate commerce. Gotcha, farmer boy!”

Comments are closed.