A nonprofit public interest law firm is suing the IRS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for withholding records of cars, cash and property seized by authorities under federal forfeiture statutes.
The Institute for Justice filed two lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Thursday after both agencies denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for government forfeiture of database records for 21 months.
“The lack of transparency surrounding forfeiture is deeply troubling, especially considering the vast power law enforcement has to take property from people without so much as charging them with a crime,” Lisa Knepper, IJ director of strategic research, said in a statement. “The public ought to know how forfeiture is being used.”
Forfeiture laws — which IJ and other critics deem unconstitutional — allow law enforcement agencies to seize cars, cash, and other property that may be involved in a crime, without charging the owner with a crime. (RELATED: Obama’s New Criminal Justice Reforms Don’t Include Civil Asset Forfeiture)
IJ filed FOIA requests with the IRS and CBP in March, 2015, as a part of its mission to end civil forfeiture nationwide. The nonprofit group requested the IRS database, called the Asset Forfeiture Tracking and Retrieval System (AFTRAK), and a CPB-maintained database called the Seized Asset and Case Tracking System (SEACATS), which keeps Department of Treasury forfeiture records.
CBP denied IJ’s request entirely, saying the request was “over-broad,” and the IRS refused to release the database unless the nonprofit group paid more than $750,000 in fines. FOIA requires agencies to respond to requests within 20 business days.
The two agencies’ denial contrasts with the Department of Justice (DOJ), which gave its forfeiture database to IJ without charge.