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Sterling Heights Gas Station Owner Says IRS Grabbed $70K From His Bank Account For No Reason

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By Christy Strawser, digital director
DETROIT (CBS Detroit) He says he’s an innocent man, never charged with any crime, who doesn’t understand why — or how — the IRS could snatch $70,000 from his bank account.

Mark Zaniewski, owner of Metro Marathon in Sterling Heights, said the IRS emptied out his bank account twice over the course of a week this spring. 

What’s he charged with? Nothing. What did he do? His attorney says he drew the suspicion of the IRS for repeatedly depositing less than $10,000 cash in his account. At $10,000 banks have to report the deposit to the feds, and under law, the IRS can seize assets under civil forfeiture laws if there’s a suspicion you’re trying to avoid the bank’s reporting mechanism.

Zaniewski is current on his taxes, according to his attorney Larry Salzman.

A call to the IRS’ spokesman in metro Detroit was not immediately returned.

Salzman works for the Institute for Justice, a West Virginia civil liberties legal service, and the Institute is asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit) for a prompt hearing to contest the seizure and for the immediate return of his property.

Because also under law, the government can keep the forfeited money as long as they want, usually until after a trial, which can take years to happen. The attorney said many people in situations like this choose to settle with the government to get 50 percent of their money back — because it’s cheaper and less hassle than a protracted trial.

“What’s most shocking is if the government takes your cash, the federal law provides no prompt way for you to get in front of a judge,” Salzberg said. “There’s just no way to get in front of a judge. He’s been waiting seven months for his cash.”

He added these types of cases may be more common than many believe.

“Michigan is ground zero for IRS forfeiture abuse,” said IJ Senior Attorney Clark Neily.  “…The IRS is taking money from hard-working, law-abiding business owners merely because it doesn’t like the way they deposit their money in their bank accounts.”

Zaniewski’s case comes on the heels of another IRS forfeiture of a Michigan business owner’s bank account, Neily said.  In September 2013, Terry Dehko and Sandra Thomas—owners of a family grocery store in suburban Fraser also went to the Institute for Justice for help when the IRS seized cash from them last January. That case has been set for a hearing on December 4, 2013, before Judge Terrence G. Berg in Flint, Mich.

“He’s a legitimate small businessman,” Salzberg said of Zaniewski. “His deposits are mostly, but not all the time, under $10,000. They didn’t investigate him. Their first action was to swoop into the bank.”

He added: “There’s no allegation of criminal wrongdoing, there’s no allegation of avoiding taxes, they punish first then investigate.”

For his part, Zaniewski said his livelihood is being threatened.

“I did nothing wrong and my business is being destroyed,” said IJ client Mark Zaniewski.  “That’s why I teamed up with the Institute for Justice, to protect the rights of all Americans against civil forfeiture.”

This is how his situation unfolded: IRS agents came to his gas station in March to tell him that his money had been seized.  They advised him to deposit whatever additional money he had into the account so that checks he wrote to his vendors would not bounce.  One official assured him that only the money they had already taken would be seized.  In order to pay for his weekly gas delivery, Zaniewski borrowed thousands of dollars from his family and deposited the funds into Metro Marathon’s account.

Before the check to his gas supplier cleared, the IRS returned to Zaniewski’s bank and emptied his account a second time, he said —causing his gas delivery check to bounce and forcing the closure of the station for more than two weeks.  Another loan from Zaniewski’s family is the only thing that has allowed him to operate while the IRS has held on to his money, he said.

“Last year alone, the government took in more than $4 billion in forfeiture money,” said IJ Attorney Larry Salzman.  “Taking money from innocent people like Mark Zaniewski and the Dehko family is wrong.  Thankfully, they are prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes to vindicate the due process rights of property owners everywhere.”

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