9 Investigates: Questions surround law that lets authorities seize money

by: Blake Hanson Updated:

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - The quaint convenience store just outside a small regional airport is a far cry from Khalid "Ken" Quran's life before leaving the Middle East. But since 1997, it's been his livelihood.

"I came here to have, it's opportunity," Quran said with a thick accent. "Good opportunity, especially for the kids."

In June 2014, his dream was nearly crushed. The Internal Revenue Service swooped in and seized his business' entire bank account. It was money the then 59-year-old planned to use to retire.

"I get robbed too many times here with guns, they come and rob me," he said. "But the government (came) and (robbed) me with the paper."

In court records, the government said it was seizing the more than $150,000 because they suspected Quran broke a law by doing something called "structuring."

The violation is meant to target drug dealers, withdrawing amounts below $10,000 to fly below the radar.

However, the IRS seized Quran's money without ever charging him with a crime through a process known as civil forfeiture.

"Civil asset forfeiture is the greatest threat to private property in America," said Rob Johnson with the Institute for Justice.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm, has helped Quran and others fight to get their money back.

"(The practice is) just not American. It takes the basic principal of innocent until proven guilty and it turns it on its head by forcing people to prove their own innocence," Johnson said.

Laws vary depending on whether it's a state or federal agency seizing the money. A study by the Institute for Justice ranked federal civil forfeiture laws dismal and gave it a "D minus."

Among individual states, North Carolina gets one of the best scores in the country in a "B plus," because agencies can't access the money they seize.

However, South Carolina ranks among the worst, according to the Institute for Justice. The report gave it a "D minus." Critics said because a high portion of the money seized in South Carolina goes to law enforcement agencies in the state, it's an incentive for authorities to take more money.

Marvin Brown, commander of the York County Joint Municipal Drug Task Force, said they did 215 seizures in 2015. He told Eyewitness News that his group errs on the side of caution when seizing property.

However, South Carolina law puts the burden on the property owner to prove the money was earned honestly.

"Can it be abused? Oh absolutely, if we're not careful," Brown said. "That's why we need to follow the law and do it exactly the way it says to do it so we won't have any issues."

After nearly two years of waiting and fighting, Quran was finally notified the IRS will give him his money back. It's a resolution to his problem, but critics said the current civil forfeiture laws are still a threat to others.

"No court, no charge, no prison. No nothing. What kind of law is that?" Quran said.

Federal agencies have scaled back some of the seizures over the past couple years. Critics said it could easily ramp back up unless Congress acts to write it in stone.

"All we're saying is that before you take somebody's money you have to prove that they're a criminal," Johnson said.