The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee have introduced bipartisan legislation to protect taxpayers against the inappropriate use of civil asset forfeitures by the Internal Revenue Service.

Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., introduced the Taxpayer Protections Against Abusive Seizures Act, which would provide taxpayers with protections against the inappropriate application of civil forfeiture laws. The laws were enacted to curtail money laundering and terrorist activities, but a recent report in The New York Times found they have also been used to seize funds from some small businesses, in some cases leaving business owners with no working capital to make payroll and maintain needed inventory.

“In America, a citizen suspected of a crime is innocent until proven guilty,” Camp said in a statement. “All too often, however, our current laws allow the government to assume guilt without allowing the accused a speedy hearing, depriving them of much needed working capital. This bill provides average American small business owners the ability to challenge powerful government agencies like the IRS, and guarantees them their day in court.”

The laws are designed to prevent a practice called “structuring,” the act of making small cash deposits to avoid the $10,000 bank-reporting threshold that is commonly used by drug dealers, money launderers and terrorist entities to avoid detection by authorities. The laws authorize the government to seize the funds of those found engaging in structuring, and in the instance reported in The New York Times, there were inadequate opportunities for the business owner to challenge the seizures. 

The legislation would provide that an affected person, within 14 days of receiving a notice of a seizure, could request a court to hold a probable cause hearing within 14 days of such request. In addition, the bill provides that if no hearing is held within 14 days of such a request, or if the government fails to show probable cause, the seized funds would automatically be returned to the individual.

“This legislation would give law-abiding taxpayers— including small business owners—an opportunity to challenge a notice of seizure and ensure that the IRS is acting appropriately and within the law,” said Levin. “Taxpayers have the right to due process when their property is seized, and this bill protects that right.”