For almost a century, Vocatura’s Bakery has been serving up delicious Italian sandwiches, pizzas, and baked goods to the community it serves. Originally established in Rhode Island in 1919, the bakery moved to Norwich, Connecticut, in the 1950s, where it still stands today.
Though the company was originally founded by Frank Vocatura, today the bakery is run by his grandsons, David and Larry Vocatura.
Since the bakery is a small family-run business, until a few years ago it only accepted cash payments. This isn’t particularly abnormal, as many smaller business have “cash only policies,” but it did set off red flags with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Whenever a business or an individual make a series of cash deposits, each under $10,000, the banks are mandated to report those transactions to the federal government. Since those involved in drug trafficking and other “organized” crimes are well-aware of these reporting laws, many of them attempt to avoid detection by only depositing cash in sums less than $10,000. This practice is actually a crime itself, known as “structuring.”
Since the Vocatura brothers deal in cash transactions so frequently, they make cash deposits in increments under $10,000 often. As a result, the IRS believed the brothers were involved criminal activity. Without any further evidence of criminal behavior, the IRS used the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture to seize $68,382 from the family bakery in May 2013.
Since civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize property of those they suspect are linked to criminal activity without ever having to charge the property owner with a crime, the brothers had very little recourse when it came to getting their money back from the federal government.
Over the past three years, as Larry and David have attempted to retrieve their money, the IRS has treated them like criminals. The two brothers have had aggressive legal tactics used against them, even being threatened with significant prison time and additional fines, all in an attempt to manipulate the brothers to permanently forfeit their money.
Last Tuesday, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Vocatura brothers, demanding that the IRS promptly return the money. The suit cites this case as another example of the government hastily going to extremes to seize property and then scrambling to justify its actions after the fact.
Just hours after the suit was filed, the IRS responded by saying it would return the money to the Vocatura brothers. However, this was not enough to satisfy the prosecutor, who now plans to launch a full-scale investigation into the bakery’s finances.
Since there has been no evidence tying the brothers to any criminal activity, and since the IRS quickly promised to return the money as soon as Institute for Justice stepped up to file suit on the brothers’ behalf, continuing the investigation at this point appears to be nothing more than an act of spite by the prosecutor. If the IRS had any proof that their initial hunch of criminal activity was correct, it would have manifested itself over the last three years that this case has been going on.
“At this point, the government is in so deep, they’ve put these guys through three years of hell — and held onto their money for three years — and so they feel like they need to justify it,” said Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. “So now they’re going to conduct this investigation into the bakery in some effort to try to find something that will make it look like they were doing the right thing all along.”
More than three years after the initial seizure, Peter S. Jongbloed, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, served a grand jury subpoena to the Vocaturas demanding that they turn over every financial record between March 2007 and April 2013, officially proclaiming that this case is far from over.
What the Vocaturas have had to endure represents just one of many cases where the government has abused the practice of civil forfeiture. As concerns over civil forfeiture abuse continue to grow, the House Judiciary Committee has taken steps to reign in the process by introducing a bill, the DUE PROCESS Act, which, among other things, would shift the burden of proof from property owners to the government. If passed, the bill will also make it easier for victims of civil forfeiture, like the Vocatura brothers, to begin the process of getting their property back.
Though this legislative attempt will have little effect on the Vocatura’s case, this bill could potentially help many others avoid becoming the government’s next victim of civil asset forfeiture.