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Posts Tagged ‘Asset Forfeiture’

In the world of public policy, it’s very easy to make fun of politicians (especially Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren).

And there are plenty of jokes about certain issues in the public arena, particularly the IRS, but also gun control and Brexit. And I have entire pages dedicated to libertarian humor and communism/socialism humor.

But some topics are so grim that’s it’s not easy to laugh about them. There’s nothing funny about the horror of Venezuela, for instance, though there are examples of dark humor from that unfortunate nation.

Another topic that doesn’t lend itself to laughs is the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. I’ve shared many nauseating stories about how governments literally steal property from people who have not been convicted of crimes (or, in many cases, have not even been accused of any crime).

Here’s the latest absurd example, this time from Michigan.

Nearly 400 people in Wayne County who were never charged with a crime still lost property to law enforcement agencies last year through a legal procedure called civil asset forfeiture… Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. …Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said…it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property. Revenue obtained from forfeited property typically goes to the agency that seized the property.

Yes, you read correctly. The agency that steals the property gets to keep the money, which is why the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture is sometimes known as “policing for profit.”

If this sounds like the kind of behavior you’d find in a third-world banana republic, you’re right.

Anyhow, is there any way we can find mirth and amusement in this reprehensible practice?

Actually, courtesy of libertarian Reddit, there is.

Kudos to the clever person who left this comment. Maybe the bureaucrats finally understand what it feels like to have property arbitrarily seized.

I’m not quite ready to applaud the actual thief, however, since a speed trailer only notifies people how fast they’re traveling.

If that person wants my praise, go after speed-trap cameras like this hero.

P.S. There is an example of money-laundering humor, and it features a former President.

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I don’t think I’ll ever stray from libertarianism. But if I ever get tempted by the siren song of statism, I’ll bolster my resistance by reminding myself of how people have been victimized by venal government.

And if that doesn’t get my libertarian blood boiling, I’ll revisit some of my columns on so-called civil asset forfeiture. This is the policy that allows the government to steal your money.

I’m not joking. Bureaucrats can take your money (or property) simply by concocting a claim that it may have been associated with criminal activity.

They can grab your cash even though you haven’t been convicted. Heck, they don’t even need to arrest you.

Let’s look at some new examples of this odious practice. We’ll start with this video clip from a local news station in Sacramento, California.

And here’s another example from West Virginia, as reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A West Virginia State Police trooper issued Dimitrios Patlias a warning for failing to drive within his lane, just before seizing more than $10,000 in cash from him and his wife. …The trooper pulled them over, Smith said in an interview, …accusing them of smuggling cigarettes, to having drugs in the car, to gift card fraud. After searching the car, their persons, and Smith’s purse, the trooper let them go with a uniform warning citation. However, he also took the $10,478 in cash, the 78 “gift cards” in the car, and Patlias’ smartphone, according to a property disposition report. …Patlias and Smith wound up returning to their home in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, stripped of all their cash but $2, without ever having been charged with a crime. …The seizure was part of a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement officers have the right to lay claim to property they argue was used in the commission of certain crimes. …the law seems to incentivize bad behavior from otherwise good police officers.“To me, this law, now that I’ve learned of it, it turns police officers into dishonest crooks,” she said. “I feel like I was in a movie.”

Yes, indeed, the cop was a crook in this instance. That’s because civil asset forfeiture creates a horrible incentive called “policing for profit.”

Efforts to curtail this disgusting tactic have not been successful in West Virginia.

In February, the state House Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would tie civil asset forfeiture to its respective criminal proceeding, i.e., if you’re acquitted criminally, the seized property cannot be forfeited. The bill died in committee.

But this story does have a happy ending. When this example of theft-by-government began to get publicity, the bureaucrats decided to return everything they stole.

After the Gazette-Mail reached out to the state police Monday with inquiries about the seizure, and after weeks of Smith calling police, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney and local politicians, Smith said an officer returned her and Patlias’ possessions in full Thursday evening.

Speaking of good news, some governments around the country are curtailing this venal practice.

And the Utah Supreme Court also is taking a jaundiced look at civil asset forfeiture, even if only for procedural reasons.

The Utah Supreme Court has sided with a man pulled over in a traffic stop where police seized more than $500,000. In a unanimous ruling published Wednesday, the state’s top court ordered a lower court to reconsider who has jurisdiction over the money seized when Kyle Savely was stopped in a 2016 traffic stop. A drug dog alerted to the presence of narcotics, but none were found. Instead, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper found cash and seized it despite never charging Savely with any drug crime. …The libertarian-leaning think tank Libertas Institute, which jumped into the case, praised the ruling. They argued that state and federal agencies often split seized money. “The public is rightly outraged by laws that allow the government to take property from people not charged with a crime, as was the case here. It’s even worse when state laws designed to protect a property owner’s rights are not followed by state agencies, which is why we’re very pleased to see the state’s highest court unanimously holding them accountable,” Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack said in a statement.

What we really need, though, is for the Supreme Court to decide whether governments have the right to steal.

And that’s exactly what may soon happen, according to Jibran Khan of National Review.

Did you know that, in most states, the police can take your money and property without even charging you with a crime? Mundane actions such as having cash on hand have been cited as grounds for seizure, as a young man moving to Los Angeles to start a business discovered when his life savings were seized. He wasn’t detained, or charged with any crime — but he was left with nothing when the Drug Enforcement Agency took his cash. In any other situation, we would label this theft… Stories abound of abusive seizures justified under civil forfeiture. …A new Supreme Court case, however, might change that. …Justice Thomas has hoped for a civil-forfeiture case to come before the Supreme Court, so that this practice, which he views as incompatible with the due-process clause, can be analyzed on constitutional grounds. When it considers Timbs v. Indiana later this year, the Court will be able to do just that.

Kudos to Clarence Thomas for wanting to protect our rights.

If you need more evidence, Khan goes on the summarize why civil asset forfeiture is so reprehensible.

The system incentivizes policing for profit, rather than for public safety. The way that seized money is spent is just as disgraceful as the takings themselves. Departments have used forfeiture funds to buy Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Corvettes, Hawaiian vacations, and ski trips — just to list a few. They have also used these funds to buy military equipment, which has contributed to the dissolution of Sir Robert Peel’s concept of good policing that held the police should be well-integrated with the public rather than seeing itself as a military force. It’s no surprise that Brad Cates, who headed up asset forfeiture at the Department of Justice in the 1980s, describes it as “a free-floating slush fund.” The taking of property from citizens who are not charged with crimes to fund lavish lifestyles for government officials sounds like something out of the most dysfunctional Third World regimes. It’s heartening to see that the Supreme Court will hear the case. The practice is an affront to both constitutional and cultural norms, and has empowered law enforcement to engage in what would be considered criminality by any other measure.

Amen.

By the way, Brad Cates is one of two former officials who were in charge of asset forfeiture who now reject the procedure.

Sadly, this is an issue where Trump and his team are definitely on the wrong side.

P.S. Defenders of civil asset forfeiture sometimes tell me that I shouldn’t get upset because many of the people who lose their property are criminals.

I’m willing to acknowledge that some of these folks may not be model citizens, but I make two basic points.

  1. Our Constitution has a presumption of innocence, so people shouldn’t be punished unless found guilty by a jury of their peers. In other words, I side with the Founding Fathers rather than Jeff Sessions.
  2. Something shouldn’t be against the law if there isn’t a victim. This is why asset forfeiture laws, just like drug laws and money-laundering laws, are misguided and should be repealed.

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I periodically list people who have suffered horrible abuse because of despicable actions by government. At some point, I’ll have to create a special page to memorialize these victims. Something like the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame or Moocher Hall of Fame, though I haven’t figured out a good name (“Victims of Government Thuggery Hall of Fame” is too wordy).

Anyhow, many of these unfortunate people (the Dehko family, Carole Hinders, Joseph Rivers, and Thomas Williams) have something in common. They are victims of theft. But they can’t call law enforcement because their money and property was stolen by the government.

Such theft is enabled by “civil asset forfeiture” and we can now add Gerardo Serrano to the list of victims. The Washington Post has the disgusting story of what happened.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Gerardo Serrano was driving from his home in Kentucky to Piedras Negras, Mexico, when his truck was searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Texas’s Eagle Pass border crossing. After finding a small ammunition clip, the agents took Serrano’s truck from him. Two years later, Customs hasn’t charged Serrano with a crime, and they haven’t given his truck back either.

The bureaucrats could take his truck because Civil asset forfeiture basically gives bureaucrats a license to steal. I’m not joking, though I wish I was.

Customs seized the truck under the laws of civil asset forfeiture, which allow authorities to take cash and property from citizens upon suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Because it happens under civil law, no criminal conviction — or even criminal charge — is necessary for authorities to take property they believe is connected to a crime.

That’s bad enough. But it gets even worse when you read about what happened to Serrano.

In September 2015, Serrano drove his new Ford F-250 pickup from his home in Kentucky to the Mexico border. He was going to visit a cousin he hadn’t seen in many years. He snapped a few photos with his phone as he drove through the checkpoint, planning to upload them to Facebook, just as he says he had been doing throughout his whole trip, to share the experience with friends and family back home. That’s when the trouble started. One of Serrano’s photos shows two Customs agents looking in his direction, hands held up. According to his lawsuit, the agents objected to his taking photos.

Are these bureaucrats members of some primitive jungle tribe that believes a photograph steals their souls?

That would at least be a semi-rational explanation.

But if you read the rest of the story, they’re apparently petulant jerks (I had other words in mind, but this is a family-friendly site).

Those agents waved him over to the side of the road, on the U.S. side of the border, and demanded he hand over his phone. Serrano said “no.” Customs declined to say whether there’s a prohibition on photography at border crossings. …one of the agents unlocked Serrano’s door, unbuckled his seat belt, and yanked him out of the car. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Serrano told The Post. “So I say ‘listen, you can’t yank me out like that, I’m an American, you can’t do that to me.’”The agent took his phone, and demanded Serrano give him the passcode. Serrano recalls he told the agent to “go get a warrant.”By this time, other agents had started searching his truck. “I said, ‘Hey listen I have rights, you’re violating my rights, you’re not supposed to do that kind of stuff,’” Serrano recounted. …“I’m sick of hearing about your rights,” the agent said, according to Serrano’s lawsuit. “You have no rights here.”Eventually, one of the agents searching the truck found an ammunition clip containing five .380-caliber bullets and yelled “we got him!,” according to the lawsuit. …Serrano had planned to take his pistol on the trip, but he left it home at the strong urging of his cousin, who explained the potential consequences of bringing it to Mexico. But he didn’t realize the extra ammunition clip, containing five .380 caliber rounds, was still in the center console of his truck.

The bureaucrats must have been trained in Venezuela.

At the crossing, the CBP agents put Serrano in handcuffs and continued to ask him to give up the passcode. “You go get that warrant,” Serrano says he told them. “I’ll wait for you in jail.” Serrano didn’t believe that any judge would grant a warrant to search a phone for taking pictures at the border. …The agents eventually placed Serrano in a locked cell without food, water or a toilet, Serrano says. Periodically someone would come in and ask for the passcode to his phone, he says. He refused every time.

The good news is that Mr. Serrano won, sort of.

Serrano says that after three hours, the agents told him he was free to go, returned his phone and said he wasn’t being arrested or charged with any crime. Serrano says he was elated.

The bad news is that the bureaucrats stole his truck.

But then, the agents handed him a document informing him that Customs was taking his truck and the ammunition clip. Those items were “subject of legally becoming the property of the Federal Government (forfeiture),” according to the document, because Serrano had failed to disclose the presence of the clip, making the truck a “conveyance of illegal exportation.” …Several weeks later he received a formal forfeiture notice from Customs, informing him that the government believed his truck was being used to transport “arms or munitions of war.” The notice gave him a number of options to pursue if he wanted his truck back.

Here’s the part that only be described as adding insult to injury.

One of the options was to make an “offer in compromise” — send Customs a check, and if they deemed the amount to be high enough, they would return his truck to him. “That’s like a shakedown,” Serrano said.

Fortunately, the great folks at the Institute for Justice are helping him challenge this horrific example of theft by government.

By the way, you may be thinking Serrano is some sort of thug, maybe a gang member from MS-13? I’ve had some defenders of civil asset forfeiture claim that the program is justifiable because it gives law enforcement leeway to go after bad guys that they can identify with their “sixth sense.” Was Serrano a bad guy who was nailed, albeit using a bad law?

Um…, not exactly.

Serrano is originally from Chicago but he’s lived on a farm in Kentucky for 20 years. A lifelong Republican, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 2014 on an explicitly pro-Second Amendment platform. He describes himself as a civil libertarian, and has a concealed carry permit for a Sig Sauer .380 pistol he carries for self-defense. “I believe in freedom,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s what made this country great, is our freedom, our liberty.”

Serrano sounds like a great American. If he’s an immigrant, I want more just like him.

He understands what’s really doing on.

“It’s like there’s a war going on and they want to make war with my Bill of Rights,” he said. “How do they get away with this? How could this happen?”

For what it’s worth, I hope Senator Rand Paul (who is willing to fight for liberty) place a “hold” on all nominations to the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security until and unless the government returns Serrano’s truck and compensates him for mistreatment.

Let’s close with some additional excerpts from the column that explain the injustice of civil asset forfeiture.

Many Americans haven’t heard of civil asset forfeiture, the legal provision that grants police the authority to seize cash and property from people not charged with a crime. The practice doesn’t follow the traditional American concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” If police suspect that you acquired something as a result of illegal activity, or even if it is connected to illegal activity, they can take it from you. If you want to get it back, the onus is on you to prove you got it legally. Once property is seized and forfeited, in most states and at the federal level police can either keep it for themselves or sell it at auction to raise money for the department. Critics say this creates a perverse profit motive. …said Robert Johnson, Serrano’s attorney. “That’s an open invitation to abuse.” The practice is widespread. In 2014, for instance, federal law enforcement officers alone took more than $5 billion worth of cash and property from people — more than the total amount of reported burglary losses that year. After public outcry, the Obama administration put in place a number of restrictions on forfeiture that made it harder, in some cases, for authorities to take property without a criminal conviction. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed those restrictions.

Every sentence of the above passage is spot on. Including the last two sentences. The Obama Administration actually took a small step in the right direction, but that was reversed in a terrible move by Trump’s Attorney General.

And here are some excerpts from a column published by CapX.

…asset forfeiture lets government agents seize Americans’ assets (cash, but also cars and even houses) on the mere suspicion that they were involved in a crime. Asset forfeiture is intended to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but frequently enables police to take the property of Americans who remain innocent in the eyes of the law. …Asset forfeiture primarily targets the poor. Most forfeitures are for small amounts: in 2012, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has focused heavily on asset forfeiture, analyzed forfeiture in 10 states and found that the median value of assets seized ranged from $451 (Minnesota) to $2,048 (Utah). Given that law enforcement routinely takes everything they find in a forfeiture case, these small values suggest the relative poverty of the victims. The procedural hurdles for challenging asset forfeiture also mean that poor people are less able to get their money back. The average forfeiture challenge requires four weekdays in court; missing four days of work can be a prohibitive expense for Americans living paycheck to paycheck. …Asset forfeiture is especially dangerous for the unbanked, because police and federal agents consider high amounts of cash to be suspect. …Asset forfeiture functions as a regressive tax, which reduces low-income Americans’ economic mobility. A family that sees their savings wiped out has to start again from the bottom. A person whose cash rent payment is seized may turn to payday loans or the black market, or simply be evicted—none of which are conducive to upward mobility.

Civil asset forfeiture is reprehensible.

The fact that poor people are disproportionately harmed is awful (and pervasive in parts of the criminal justice system).

P.S. To their credit, the first two administrators of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program now recognize that it’s become an abusive monster and want it repealed.

P.P.S. It’s possible that the border bureaucrats were acting because of bias, of perhaps profiling Serrano because of his Latino heritage. But I never hurl that accusation without some real evidence. Unlike some people.

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Some types of theft are legal in America.

But there’s a catch. You can only legally steal if you work for the government. It’s a process called “civil asset forfeiture” and it enables government officials to confiscate your property even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime.

I’m not joking. This isn’t a snarky reference to the tax system. Nor am I implying that bureaucrats can figuratively steal your property. We’re talking about literal theft by the state.

And it can happen if some government official decides – without any legal proceeding – that the property somehow may have been involved in criminal activity. Or maybe just because you have the wrong skin color.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains this grotesque injustice.

…thousands of Americans have had their assets taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Russ Caswell almost lost his Massachusetts motel, which had been run by his family for more than 50 years, because of 15 “drug-related incidents” there from 1994-2008, a period through which he rented out nearly 200,000 rooms. Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers had his entire bank account—roughly $60,000—seized by the IRS, which accused him of running afoul of reporting requirements for cash deposits. …A manager of a Christian rock band had $53,000 in cash—profits from concerts and donations intended for an orphanage in Thailand—seized in Oklahoma after being stopped for a broken taillight. All of the property in these outrageous cases was eventually returned, but only after an arduous process.

These abuses happen in large part because cops are given bad incentives.

Any property they steal from citizens can be used to pad the budgets of police bureaucracies.

Today more than 40 states and the federal government permit law-enforcement agencies to retain anywhere from 45% to 100% of forfeiture proceeds. As a result, forfeiture has practically become an industry.

And real money is involved.

…data on asset forfeiture across 14 states, including California, Texas and New York. Between 2002 and 2013, the revenue from forfeiture more than doubled, from $107 million to $250 million. Federal confiscations have risen even faster. In 1986 the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund collected $93.7 million. In 2014 the number was $4.5 billion.

In other words, there’s a huge incentive for cops to misbehave. It’s called “policing for profit.”

Fortunately, there is a move for reform at the state level.

Since 2014 nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or increasing transparency. Nearly 20 other states are considering similar legislation. …lawmakers in Alaska, Connecticut, North Dakota and Texas have sponsored legislation that would send confiscated proceeds directly to the general fund of the state or county. Similar measures in Arizona and Hawaii would restrict forfeiture proceeds to being used to compensate crime victims and their families. …Last fall California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that, in most cases, requires a criminal conviction before any California agency can receive equitable-sharing proceeds. In January Ohio Gov. John Kasich approved legislation to ban his state’s police and prosecutors from transferring seized property to federal agencies unless its value is more than $100,000. Similar reforms have been introduced in Colorado, New Hampshire and a handful of other states.

Legislative reforms are good, though judicial action would be even better.

And, sooner or later, that may happen.

America’s best (but not quite perfect) Supreme Court Justice is justly outraged by these examples of legalized theft. First, some background.

…the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by a Texas woman who says that her due process rights were violated when the police seized over $200,000 in cash from her family despite the fact that no one has been convicted of any underlying crime associated with the money. Unfortunately, thanks to the state’s sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws, the authorities were permitted to take the money of this innocent woman. The Supreme Court offered no explanation today for its refusal to hear the case.

But Justice Thomas is not happy that government officials are allowed to randomly steal property.

Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that he believes the current state of civil asset forfeiture law is fundamentally unconstitutional. “This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas declared. Furthermore, he wrote, the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on the matter are starkly at odds with the Constitution, which “presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation.” Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, various procedural protections, and the right to a trial by jury. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, offer no such constitutional safeguards for the rights of person or property.

The article continues to explain that Thomas could be signalling that the Supreme Court will address these issues in the future, even though it didn’t choose to address the case filed by the Texas woman.

Let’s hope so. It’s heartening that there’s been a bit of good news at the state level (I even wrote that reform of asset forfeiture was one of the best developments of 2015), but it would be nice if the Supreme Court ultimately decided to prohibit civil asset forfeiture altogether.

But that might be years in the future, so let’s close with a very fresh example of a good state-based reform.

The Wall Street Journal favorably opined yesterday about reforms that have been enacted in Mississippi.

…it’s worth highlighting a civil forfeiture reform backed by the ACLU that Mississippi GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed last week with bipartisan legislative support.

The editorial reminds us why asset forfeiture is wrong.

…civil forfeiture laws…allow law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect to be related to a crime without actually having to obtain a conviction or even submit charges. Police and prosecutors can auction off the property and keep the proceeds to pad their budgets. …Perverse incentives…create a huge potential for abuse.

Here’s what Mississippi did.

Mississippi’s reforms, which were pushed by the Institute for Justice and had nearly unanimous support in the legislature, would curb the most egregious abuses. Law enforcers would have to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours and prosecute within 30 days, so they couldn’t take property while trying to formulate a case. Agencies would also be required to publish a description of the seized property along with its value and petitions contesting the forfeiture to an online public database. …the public will finally be able to police misconduct by law enforcement in criminal raids. That’s something even liberals can cheer.

It’s nice that there’s been reform at the state level, and the Mississippi example is quite encouraging. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that there may not be much reason to expect progress from the White House since both President Trump and his Attorney General support these arbitrary and unfair confiscations of property.

Which is a shame since they both took oaths to protect Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

However, if the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office can change their minds and urge repeal of these unfair laws, maybe there’s hope for Trump and Sessions.

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What were the most noteworthy events from 2015?

Regarding bad news, there’s unfortunately a lot of competition. But if I’m forced to pick the very worst developments, here’s my list.

Resuscitation of the Export-Import Bank – I did a premature victory dance last year when I celebrated the expiration of the Export-Import Bank’s authority.  I should have known that corrupt cronyism was hard to extinguish. Sure enough, Republicans and Democrats conspired to re-authorize the Ex-Im Bank and transfer wealth from ordinary Americans to politically connected corporations.

Expansion of IMF authority – I also did a premature victory dance in 2014 when I lauded the fact that Congress did not approve increased bailout authority for the International Monetary Fund. Sadly, as part of the year-end spending agreement, Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s authority so it could continue to push for higher taxes around the world.

Busting the spending caps (again) – When I wrote last August that maintaining the spending caps was a key test of GOP integrity, I should have known that they would get a failing grade. Sure enough, Republicans deliberately fumbled the ball at the goal line and agreed to higher spending. Again.

Supreme Court ignores law to bail out Obamacare (again) – Back in 2012, the Supreme Court had a chance to rule whether Obamacare was an impermissible expansion of the power of the federal government. In a truly odious decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ignored the Constitution’s limits on federal powers and decided we could be coerced to buy health insurance. Last year, he did it again, this time by bailing out a key part of Obamacare by deciding to arbitrarily ignore the wording of the law.

Business-as-usual transportation bill – The desire of Congress to fund pork-barrel transportation projects is at least somewhat constrained by the amount of revenue generated by the gas tax. There was an opportunity for reform in 2015 because proposed spending was much higher than the trajectory of gas tax revenue, but rather than even engage in a discussion of good policy options, politicians merely bickered over what combination of tax hikes and budget gimmicks they could put together to keep the pork projects flowing.

Creeping support on the right for the value-added tax – When I wrote early last year that the 2016 election might create an opportunity for tax reform, I was being hopeful that we might get something close to a simple and fair flat tax. Yet probably the biggest news so far in this election cycle is that a couple of candidates who presumably favor small government – Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – have proposed to impose a value-added tax without fully repealing the income tax.

There’s very little good news to celebrate. Here’s my tragically sparse list, and you’ll notice that my list of victories is heavy on style and light on substance. But let’s take what we can get.

Semi-decent Republican budgets – The budget resolution produced by Congress technically doesn’t embrace specific policies, but the it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the House and Senate approved numbers that – at least conceptually – are based on genuine Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Support for spending caps – Notwithstanding the fact that GOP politicians won’t even abide by the limited spending caps that already exist, I’m somewhat encouraged by the growing consensus for comprehensive spending caps akin to the ones in place in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Heck, even international bureaucracies now agree spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

Good election results from the Wolverine State – It was great to see Michigan voters reject a gas tax increase that was supported by the political elite.

More companies escaping the IRS – I heartily applaud when companies figure out how to re-domicile in jurisdictions with better tax law to escape America’s high corporate tax rate and self-destructive worldwide tax system. And I’m glad these “inversions” continue to take place even though the Obama Administration is trying to stop them.

A glimmer of reality at the New York Times – I realize I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel in my search for good news, but the fact that the New York Times published a column acknowledging that feminist economic policies backfire against women hopefully is a sign that sensible thinking is possible in the establishment media.

Gun control flopping – It’s great to see that the left has totally failed in its effort to undermine 2nd Amendment rights.

Limits on asset forfeiture – The final bit of good news from 2015 was the just-before-Christmas announcement by the Obama Administration that the odious practice of asset forfeiture would be modestly curtailed.

I would offer predictions for 2016, but since my big prediction from last year that we would have gridlock was sadly inaccurate, I think I’ll avoid making a fool of myself this year.

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Since we enjoyed yesterday a libertarian version of the night-before-Christmas story, let’s continue today with the holiday spirit.

During previous Christmas seasons, I’ve shared Keynesian Christmas carols, a great Jay Leno joke, a video of Santa as a small business owner dealing with red tape, and a look at the all-important question of whether Santa is a leftist or conservative.

Today, though, let’s be momentarily serious and enjoy a Christmas present to the nation from an unexpected source. The Obama Administration has announced that the odious practice of asset forfeiture is going to be curtailed.

Here are some excerpts from a Washington Post report.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it’s suspending a controversial program that allows local police departments to keep a large portion of assets seized from citizens under federal law and funnel it into their own coffers. The “equitable-sharing” program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize — even if the people they took from are never charged with a crime. …Criminal justice reformers are cheering the change. “This is a significant deal,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice.

But don’t get too excited. This almost certainly is not a sign of genuine libertarian thinking inside the Obama Administration.

Indeed, the story suggests that the Justice Department made this change at least in part because it didn’t want to share money with state and local governments.

The DOJ is suspending payments under this program due to budget cuts included in the recent spending bill. “While we had hoped to minimize any adverse impact on state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners, the Department is deferring for the time being any equitable sharing payments from the Program,” M. Kendall Day, chief of the asset forfeiture and money laundering section, wrote in a letter to state and local law enforcement agencies. In addition to budget cuts last year, the program has lost $1.2 billion, according to Day’s letter. “The Department does not take this step lightly,” he wrote. “We explored every conceivable option that would have enabled us to preserve some form of meaningful equitable sharing. … Unfortunately, the combined effect of the two reductions totaling $1.2 billion made that impossible.”

Good, I’m glad they didn’t find a “conceivable option” that would have enabled the government to continue stealing property from people who haven’t been convicted of wrongdoing.

Now that we’ve been serious, let’s get back into the Christmas spirit.

An article in The Atlantic looks at Christmas cards, as designed by economists. Mostly they showed why we’re not at the top of people’s invite lists for holiday parties. Here are my two favorites.

Yup, only economists could describe things like love and family in this fashion!

I don’t even know how to characterize this card, but this sometimes is how economists think.

Last but not least, here are a couple of great Christmas-themed cartoons from two years ago, both by Michael Ramirez.

We’ll start with a Christmas wish that Santa hopefully granted.

Amen.

After all, a GOP with spine wouldn’t cower, as illustrated amusingly by A.F. Branco, when Obama threatens a so-called government shutdown.

Our next cartoon looks at an implication of all Obama’s spending plans.

And if you wonder about the size of Santa Obama’s sack, just check out these very depressing numbers.

After perusing that data, some of us may not be feeling like our statist friends deserve any holiday cheer. But this is Christmas, so let’s try to feel love and joy. So if you see some of your government worshipping friends and family today, we even have a Christmas greeting that’s appropriate for leftists.

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Remember Sleepless in Seattle, the 1993 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?

Well, there should be a remake of that film entitled Clueless in Washington. But it wouldn’t be romantic and it wouldn’t be a comedy.

Though there would be a laughable aspect to this film, because it would be about an editorial writer at the Washington Post trying to convince people to feel sorry for the IRS. Here’s some of what Stephen Stromberg wrote on Wednesday.

Congress has done some dumb things. One of the dumbest is the GOP’s penny-wise-pound-foolish campaign to defund the Internal Revenue Service. …its mindless tantrum against the IRS has produced for taxpayers: a tax season that was “by far the worst in memory,” according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an agency watchdog.

Before I share any more of the article, I should point out that the “Taxpayer Advocate Service” isn’t a watchdog. It should be renamed the “Government Advocate Service” since its main goal is to increase the IRS’s budget.

But I’m digressing. Let’s continue with Mr. Stromberg’s love letter to tax collectors.

The underlying problem is that Congress has asked the IRS to do a lot more, such as administering a critical piece of Obamacare, but the GOP Congress won’t give the agency the funding it needs to do its work. …But good luck convincing Republicans to fix the IRS’s entirely predictable and avoidable problems. Not when that would mean restraining the impulse to act on anti-tax orthodoxy, blind populist anger and scandal-mongering about the IRS mistreating conservatives. In fact, Republicans want to double down on their nonsense budgeting, proposing deep cuts to the IRS last month.

Oops, time for another correction.

Stromberg is cherry picking data to imply that the IRS budget has been savaged.

If you look at the long-run data, however, you’ll see that the IRS now has almost twice as much money to run its operations as it did a few decades ago.

And that’s based on inflation-adjusted dollars, so we have a very fair apples-to-apples comparison.

Stromberg also wants us to sympathize with the bureaucrats because the tax code has been made more complex.

The underlying irrationality is the same: The IRS doesn’t write the tax code or health-care law, but the agency must apply these policies and engage with people affected by them, so it is an easy scapegoat.

Part of this passage is correct, and I’ve specifically pointed out that the tax code is mind-numbingly complex and that politicians deserve an overwhelming share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs.

That being said, the IRS goes beyond the law to make the system worse, as we saw when it imposed a regulation that put foreign tax law above American tax law. And when it arbitrarily rewrote the Obamacare legislation to enable additional subsidies.

In other words, it deserves to be scapegoated.

But there’s a bigger issue, one that Stromberg never even addresses. Why should we give more money to a bureaucracy that manages to find plenty of resources to do bad things?

Never forget, after all, that this is the bureaucracy that – in an odious display of bias – interfered with the electoral process by targeting the President’s opponents.

And then awarded bonuses to itself for this corrupt behavior!

Even more outrageous, the Washington Examiner reports today that the IRS still hasn’t cleaned up its act.

A series of new revelations Wednesday and Thursday put the Internal Revenue Service back under fire for its alleged efforts to curtail…conservative nonprofits. …the Government Accountability Office uncovered evidence that holes in the tax agency’s procedure for selecting nonprofit groups to be audited could allow bias to seep into the process. …lawmakers exposed the lack of safeguards that could prevent IRS officials from going after groups with which they disagreed. Meanwhile, the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch released documents Wednesday that suggested the IRS targeted the donors of certain tax-exempt organizations.

Does this sound like a bureaucracy that deserves more of our money?

If you’re still not sure how to answer, consider the fact that the IRS also somehow has enough money in its budget to engage in the disgusting “asset forfeiture” racket.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this scandal.

…a pair of new horror stories show why Americans dread any interaction with the vindictive tax man. Khalid Quran owns a small business in Greenville, North Carolina. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1997, opened a convenience store near a local airport, and worked long hours to give his four children more opportunity. After nearly two decades, Mr. Quran had saved $150,000 for retirement. Then in 2014 the IRS seized his bank account because he had made withdrawals that raised red flags under “structuring” laws that require banks to report transactions of more than $10,000. Mr. Quran had made transactions below that limit.

So even though Mr. Quran did nothing illegal and even though it’s legal to make deposits of less than $10,000, the IRS stole his money.

Just like money was stolen from the Dehko family.

Here’s the other example from the WSJ.

Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers…had $62,936.04 seized from his bank account because of the pattern of his deposits, though the money was all legally earned. …Mr. Sowers told his story to a local newspaper…a lawyer for Mr. Sowers asked…“why he is being treated differently.” Mr. Cassella replied that the other forfeiture target “did not give an interview to the press.” So much for equal treatment under the law.

Yes, you read correctly. If you have the temerity to expose the IRS’s reprehensible actions, the government will try to punish you more severely.

Even though the only wrongdoing that ever happened was the IRS’s confiscation of money in the first place!

So let’s celebrate the fact that the IRS is being subjected to some modest but long-overdue belt-tightening.

Notwithstanding Mr. Stromberg’s column, the IRS is not a praiseworthy organization. And many of the bureaucrats at the agency deserve our disdain.

The bottom line is that IRS budget cuts show that Republicans sometimes do the right thing.

And maybe if there are continued cuts and the current tax system actually does become unenforceable at some point, maybe politicians could be convinced to replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. Clueless in Washington won’t be the only remake out of DC if President Obama decides to go Hollywood after 2016. Indeed, I suspect his acting career would be more successful than mine.

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