Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Human Magnetoreception Research Resumes After 30 Years of Neglect

Robin Baker’s human magnetoreception experiments in the late 1970’s and 80’s were pioneering efforts that led to—30 years of basically doing nothing. Failure to replicate his results was the reason for this, but failure to replicate is common in neuroscience. The brain is complicated, and we don’t have a good understanding of it yet. Why failure to replicate led to scientists abandoning human magnetoreception, but not abandoning other fields like brain imaging, search for chemical imbalances, etc. probably requires a psychological explanation along the lines of Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

While scientists abandoned the study of human magnetoreception, a small number of scientists continued studying nonhuman animal magnetoreception, making important contributions in experimental technique and understanding of biophysical mechanisms. These contributions, which were yet to be discovered at the time of Robin Baker’s pioneering experiments, along with general technological improvements, have led to much better experimental control than was possible during Robin Baker’s time. I’m pleased to be able to report two human magnetoreception experiments that make use of these scientific and technological advances, and have been published in science journals this year.

The first experiment, Chae et al., was done by a research group in South Korea. They did a modification of Robin Baker’s spinning chair experiment. In Baker’s original experiment, blindfolded subjects were spun around in random directions in a chair, and asked to say the compass direction they were facing. In this new experiment, the researchers created an artificial magnetic field using Helmholtz coils, and shielded subjects from external EMF’s using a Faraday cage. 41 subjects with no physical or mental disorders, ages 19-33 years, approximately evenly divided between men and women, were studied. Subjects were able to rotate their chairs instead of having the chairs rotated for them. They were asked, with eyes closed, to rotate their chair to face magnetic north or east. These magnetic directions were modified by the Helmholtz coils. Adding an operant conditioning component, some subjects were starved, and “rewarded” with candy if they faced the correct direction. The ambient light was experimentally controlled. Some subjects were blindfolded. The study made use of scientific advances in understanding of factors that can affect animal magnetoreception, including that some RF frequency EMF’s can affect magnetoreception, and that some types of magnetoreception requires low wavelength monochromatic visible light (i.e. blue or green, but not red or yellow). The authors concluded that starved men (but not women) significantly oriented toward magnetic north or east. This orientation was maintained under blue light, but not under long wavelength (> 500nm) light.

I have several issues with this experiment. One is that, like with many of the Robin Baker experiments, and unlike with most nonhuman animal experiments, there’s a lot of spread in the data. The highest r value (a measure of the variability, with a higher r meaning less variability) is 0.51, which isn’t very good. To get a visual idea, here’s a reproduction of the main results figure:

The blue dots represent data points, i.e. direction estimates. See how the blue dots in the supposedly significant D and H are spread around in a circle. If the subjects really were able to ascertain their direction, the dots would be congregated either at magnetic north or magnetic east. Results like these are invitations for failure to replicate, as happened with Robin Baker.

If you’re going to test light-dependent magnetoreception, why ask subjects to close their eyes? It drastically reduces the light hitting the retina, and may disable the light-dependent magnetoreceptor. There was no reason in this experiment for subjects to close their eyes, as the magnetic field was modified by the Helmholtz coils, and was invisible to the subjects.

It’s not a good idea to test human magnetoreception in only healthy subjects. Most people who have contacted me regarding purported magnetic sensitivity have some sort of psychological and/or physical problems. Just think about it—if you’re sensitive to magnetic fields, you’re not going to do well in modern society, with all the artificial magnetic fields that we’re forced to live with. You may have done well a long time ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, but not today.

I don’t see how starving humans and conditioning them using food adds anything of value to this experiment. If humans were able to ascertain compass direction, then it shouldn’t matter if they were starving or not.

Did any individuals exhibit special powers of ascertaining compass direction? The results were grouped, so I can’t tell. Anyone studying magnetoreception should look for individual differences and focus on those who are sensitive. This leads to my discussion of the second experiment, which did just that.

This Wang et al. experiment, done by a research group at Caltech headed by longtime magnetoreception researcher Joseph Kirschvink (joined with others at Princeton and the University of Tokyo), has been extensively reported in the science press (see this, and this for good nontechnical summaries). Instead of measuring navigational abilities like Robin Baker or the Chae et al. study mentioned above, this experiment looked at a drop in amplitude of the alpha EEG brainwave (known as alpha-event-related desynchronization, or alpha-ERD) in response to changes to external magnetic fields. It studied 24 adult males and 12 adult females, ages 18-68, “recruited from the Caltech population.” Subjects included people of European, Asian, African, and North American descent. Like with the Chae et al. experiment, a Faraday Cage was used to shield against external EMF’s. This experiment used a nested set of orthogonal, squared Merritt coils to modify the magnetic field surrounding the subject. An EEG was used to measure brainwaves, and current EEG analytical techniques were used to identify patterns. A battery-powered digital conversion unit relayed data over an optical fiber cable to a remote-control room. This room, ~ 20 meters away from the subject, had all power supplies, computers, and monitoring equipment. The paper goes into great detail on the experimental setup, to aid in future replication efforts. Participants sat with eyes closed, in total darkness during the experiments. Tests were run that varied inclination with declination constant, or varied declination with inclination constant. Each run was ~ 7 minutes long, with 8 runs in a ~ 1 hour session. There were sham runs (no changes) interspersed with real runs, and the experiment was conducted double blind. Here's a picture of the experimental setup:

The study reported alpha-ERD in 4 out of the original 36 participants (11%) that remained stable over time. The alpha-ERD occurred when inclination changed (i.e. from upward to downward, or vice versa). The alpha-ERD also occurred when declination changed counterclockwise, but only when the magnetic vector was pointed downward, as it does naturally in the Northern Hemisphere. There was no alpha-ERD when declination changed but the magnetic vector pointed upward, as it does naturally in the Southern Hemisphere. This asymmetry, along with other analysis, was used to rule out potential biophysical mechanisms such as the quantum compass and induction. The authors suggest magnetite as a likely biophysical magnetoreceptive mechanism, although this experiment wasn’t designed to prove this. None of the participants in the study could consciously distinguish between different magnetic field conditions.

This study needed a lot more information about the participants, especially the ones who had the strong responses. We are given no information about how they were selected. They were from the Caltech population. What does that mean? Were they students, professors, employees, or a combination of the three? The fact that someone is at Caltech at the time of the experiment tells me nothing of their background. They could have lived all their life in Sydney, and started at Caltech a month or two before the study. In that case, I’d expect their magnetoreceptor to be tuned to the Southern Hemisphere. Future human magnetoreception studies should have a detailed history of where and when a person lived. Many people move around a lot in their childhood, including from Northern to Southern Hemisphere, and vice versa. We also need to know where they spent their adult life. If someone who spent their childhood in Cape Town but has lived in LA for 6 years, and has alpha-ERD responses at Caltech with downward inclination like in the Northern Hemisphere, then that would indicate that this response is capable of adaptation after childhood.

There should also be personality and clinical testing of participants to determine if the responders had any noticeable differences from the non-responders. That would aid in identifying other responders.

One flaw in this study is that it groups statistics between responders and non-responders. They did find significant ANOVA results, but what if there were only one or two responders instead of four? That’s a potential problem for replication. If they need more subjects for statistical power, they should find more responders, and group the responders together.

While the authors’ exclusion of the quantum compass (i.e. radical pair) biophysical process makes sense based on their data, it must be remembered that the experiment was done with eyes closed, in total darkness. The quantum compass is a light-dependent magnetoreceptive process. It’s possible that humans have this quantum compass, which was turned off under these experimental conditions.
The alpha rhythm is an awake, resting rhythm. The conditions of eyes closed and total darkness is somewhere in between normal waking behavior and sleep. Studies of normal alert waking behavior should involve eyes open and lights on. This would activate the light-dependent quantum compass magnetoreceptor, assuming humans have it.

This study is very important in creating a magnetically-controlled condition that utilizes EEG, as this can be applied to sleep research. Ten years ago, I argued in my research paper that any studies on my magnetoreceptive abilities would require experimental control of my sleeping behavior. I couldn’t imagine at the time how this could be accomplished in a magnetically controlled way, especially EEG, which is critical in sleep research. Thanks to the Wang et al. experiment, it does appear now within reach. The kind of experimental controls used in this study can also be used in a sleep experiment. Some of the independent variables in sleep magnetoreception research include inclination and intensity, bed angle, bed time, and ferromagnetic materials near one’s head when sleeping. Bed angle (i.e. angle of the long axis of the bed relative to magnetic north), inclination and intensity can be manipulated by the Merritt coils. With EEG, bed time (i.e. the time when you initially go to sleep) can be precisely determined, along with the progression of sleep stages. Ferromagnetic materials can be introduced in the experimental chamber in a double blind manner to determine the effect on sleep. Dependent variables include subjective sleep quality, psychological state upon awakening (which is heavily dependent on sleep quality), and EEG.

I think from my own experience that human conscious perception of magnetic field changes requires prior sleep under similar conditions to the awake testing ones. That means that the subject will have to spend at least several nights sleeping in the experimental sleep apparatus prior to awake testing. It also means that magnetic changes need to be physically realistic. In the Wang et al. experiment, the inclination sweep was not realistic. It would require a Star Trek-type transporter to move physically that amount of inclination in that short a time. Realistic inclination changes that would maintain conscious magnetoreceptive responses are similar to those occurring while running, biking, or driving (not flying). Declination sweeps, however, are more realistic, as it only requires body rotation. In North America, both inclination and intensity are highly correlated, so physically-realistic changes would require changes in both at the same time, and in the same direction. Lastly, the subjective importance of bed time in my research seems to imply perception of geomagnetic diurnal variation. It’s possible that conscious perception of the artificially-generated magnetic field may require a time-dependent component similar to the natural field.

In summary, human magnetoreception research is back in business. While these two experiments are a start, and need to survive replication, they point the way to further experiments of sleeping and waking behavior. Under the right conditions, these future experiments can verify my hypothesis that some people are sleep sensitive to magnetic fields, that some people can consciously perceive magnetic fields, and this sleep sensitivity and conscious perception may be connected to symptoms of psychiatric disorders.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Harry Magnet Site is Now Mobile Friendly

Check out the updated site at You can now view the site on your phone or tablet, along with your computer. There is some updated content, primarily in the Are You Sensitive page. I restructured the page to separate out geomagnetic field and artificial field sensitivity, with further separation of waking and sleeping states. I also made changes based on feedback I've gotten over the years, such as from people who claim to be able to perceive distant earthquakes before they occur.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Harry Magnet Mentioned in Podcast

My website has been up for over 5 years, but there have been very few external web references to it. I was pleased to find today a Mysterious Universe podcast from June 19 that mentions me. The entire podcast is over an hour in duration. The discussion turns to animal magnetoreception at 14:30. The narrators then discuss Robin Baker's human experiments at 17:35. They discuss me beginning at 20:00, ending at 24:15. The discussion is partly humorous, partly serious, but I think they give a pretty good brief summary of my ideas.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Adult ADHD Drug Use Skyrockets

A recent article reported that American adults now exceed children in ADHD drug prescriptions. In 2007, adults accounted for 39% of 37 million total ADHD drug prescriptions. In 2014, adults accounted for 53% of 63 million total ADHD drug prescriptions. Note that the total number of yearly ADHD drug prescriptions to both children and adults increased by 70% (from 37 million to 63 million) during this 7 year time period.

Why are so many adults taking ADHD drugs? While the official line from the psychiatry establishment is that previously undiagnosed adults are finally coming forward to doctors and getting diagnosed with ADHD, a New York Times article from a few months ago tells a different story. Many adults are obtaining ADHD drugs (legally via prescription or illegally from friends or dealers) not because they are ill, but because they want to perform better at work. They want to be able to get by with 4 hours or less of sleep per night. They want to knock out PowerPoint presentations to keep up with the competition.

The article opens with an example of Elizabeth, “a Long Island native in her late 20s”, who purchased Adderall from a drug dealer to do an all-nighter to complete a PowerPoint presentation. She was doing this presentation for investors in her health-technology start-up company. Why did Elizabeth feel compelled to purchase Adderall from a drug dealer, given the risks inherent in illegal drug sales, along with the risks of amphetamine use, such as anxiety, addiction, and hallucinations? According to Elizabeth, “not to take Adderall while competitors did would be like playing tennis with a wood racket.” Elizabeth also tried the legal route to obtain amphetamine, going to a psychiatrist and complaining that she could not concentrate on work. In 10 minutes, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for Adderall. The article isn’t clear why she got Adderall from (illegal) drug dealers in addition to the (legal psychiatric) dealers. Perhaps her doctor wouldn’t prescribe enough Adderall for her to knock out all those PowerPoints.

I play tennis. I wouldn’t want to try to play with a wooden racket. But I don’t see how my playing with a modern racket is anyway comparable to popping Adderall to stay awake and focused. Modern tennis rackets don’t have any side effects. They’re not addictive. They don’t alter brain chemistry.

The article mentions the darker side of stimulant use. A young woman became hooked on Adderall while in college, getting the drug from classmates for $5 or $10 a pill. She began taking more Adderall while working after college. Becoming too wired to relax or sleep, she tried taking Xanax to calm down. After experimenting with alcohol, cigarettes, and other prescription drugs to try to stabilize her intense mood swings, she ended up in a treatment center.

Many times a brief chat with a doctor is all that’s needed to get an ADHD diagnosis and Adderall, Vyvanse, Concerta, or Ritalin prescription. A Houston lawyer increased his dosage from 20 mg of Adderall to 100 mg, twice the highest FDA recommended dose, by getting prescriptions from multiple doctors, a felony in Texas. His bosses and clients were thrilled with his productivity. This lawyer soon realized that there were negative consequences to his drug use: rapid heartbeat, sweating, acute anxiety, and sleep deprivation. His wife divorced him, he lost his job, and he spent six weeks at a drug treatment center.

In a Room for Debate follow-up article, three “experts” try to convince us that this use of ADHD drugs for workplace performance enhancement is a new trend of modern life. Titles such as “This Is the Probable Future”, “Equalizers in a Stressful World, If Used Properly”, and “A Symptom of Modern Life” suggest that we are facing something that represents a viable way to cope with the stress and demands of the contemporary workplace. According Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, “Ritalin and other stimulants improve impulse control,” and impulse control is one of the most important determinants of success in life.

Ritalin and other stimulants improve impulse control? Huh? They are highly addictive drugs. Taking an addictive drug for whatever reason, to get high, or to perform better at work, or to pull an all-nighter, is not an example of impulse control, but the opposite—a surrender of one’s long-term best interest to short-term gain (feeling high and energetic). That’s what the supposed experts in our society are advising us to do, but it doesn’t make it right.

These articles suggest that ADHD drug use is some new trend to cope with the twenty-first century workplace. This is inaccurate. ADHD drugs like amphetamines are nothing new. The amphetamine Benzedrine dates from the 1930’s, decades before first generation antidepressants and antipsychotics were introduced. The young people like Elizabeth who feel compelled to take amphetamines to perform better at work are making the same mistakes that many of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations made. Doctors who prescribe stimulant drugs today are making the same mistakes that doctors made decades ago, only for different reasons. While doctors in the mid-twentieth century prescribed amphetamine for people to lose weight, or treat mild depression or psychosomatic ailments, without knowing the adverse effects, doctors today cannot be ignorant about the abuse potential of these drugs. That’s the reason that they are Schedule II controlled substances in the U.S. The different today is that the alliance between Big Pharma and Psychiatry has fooled people and doctors into thinking that many children and adults have a disorder called ADHD that can be treated with stimulant drugs. They “prove” their case for the efficacy of the drugs based on short-term studies. There’s no question that the drugs improve short-term attention. The problem is long-term functioning. Since Pharma doesn’t need to prove long-term efficacy for drug approval, and Pharma provides most of the funding for studies, we know little scientifically about long-term efficacy.

My father was a habitual user of amphetamines for about 40 years. When he started with them as a young man for weight loss, little was known about their adverse effects. Although the pills may have helped him lose weight and perform better at work, he paid the price when he got older. He developed chronic severe depression and anxiety beginning in his fifties. He had a major depressive episode leading to a suicide attempt that landed him in a treatment center. After he was weaned off amphetamine and put on "safer" drugs like antidepressants and antipsychotics, he couldn't function at work and was forced to retire from a career he loved in his early sixties.

I have suffered from problems with attention as an adult. I briefly tried Ritalin after I convinced my psychiatrist to diagnose me with ADD, and found that the drug did improve my focus when studying difficult scientific subjects in school. I didn’t like the emotional-numbing and social withdrawal effects, however, and stopped taking this drug. Later I found alternative ways to improve focus, including meditation / guided imagery exercises, and behavioral changes based on my human magnetoreception hypothesis. Although what I’m doing may not work for everyone, I think doctors and scientists need to be open to alternative ways to control attention deficit / hyperactive symptoms. Mass-prescribing amphetamines and other stimulants is an old idea that is getting new traction due to the adult ADHD diagnosis fad.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Good Introduction to the Science of Magnetoreception

I recently came across an article published in 2013 in The Scientist magazine that is the best short introduction to magnetoreception for non-experts that I've read. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, "magnetoreception" is animal perception of the geomagnetic field that is used for orientation and navigation. There are a number of review articles on magnetoreception published in scientific journals, but these can be hard to follow for people who aren't scientists working in this biological subfield. This article in The Scientist magazine provides a clear summary of the scientific facts, the historical context, and biographical sketches about scientists working in the field. Some highlights include:
  • The pioneering discoveries of German zoologists Wolfgang Wiltschko and his wife Roswitha in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. They found that the seasonal migratory direction of caged European Robins can be changed to the opposite direction by reversing the inclination of the artificial magnetic field in the cage. They discovered that migratory birds have an “inclination compass”, in which birds can sense the inclination of the magnetic field lines and adjust their course based on whether they are moving toward the magnetic pole or equator.
  • The theoretical work of Klaus Schulten and Thorsten Ritz on the radical-pair mechanism for magnetoreception. This theory argues that the inclination compass that the Wiltschkos discovered via behavioral experiments with birds is located in the retina of a bird’s eye. Radical-pair reactions in the photoreceptor protein cryptochrome can be affected by the direction of the geomagnetic field, providing a bird with a way to sense magnetic field inclination. In the past 10 to 15 years, researchers have obtained circumstantial evidence for this theory, including the disruptive effects of high-frequency (MHz) radio waves, the discovery of long-lived radical pairs in bird cryptochrome, the discovery of cryptochrome in all UV/violet cones in retinas of European robins and chickens, and genetic knock-out experiments involving Drosophila flies.
  • American neurobiologist Ken Lohmann’s discovery of sea turtles’ inner GPS abilities. Animals can use the geomagnetic field inclination and intensity as magnetic “signposts” that provide positional information. In groundbreaking experiments, Lohmann and associates found that juvenile green turtles will swim south in a cage that has an artificial magnetic field with inclination and intensity representing a northern location (from their home), and swim north if the artificial magnetic inclination and intensity represent a southern location. Since inclination and intensity vary primarily in a north-south direction (from the magnetic equator to the pole), it’s reasonable that animals can use these parameters as a basis for a north-south map. What was surprising was an experiment with caged loggerhead turtles in which they were able to recognize the inclination and intensity magnetic signatures on the eastern and western ends of the North Atlantic ocean. The turtles adjusted their headings to that corresponding to remaining in the warm water gyre, something that they would need to do in nature to survive the long migration across the Atlantic ocean. This was first evidence that animals can encode longitudinal information as well as latitudinal by means of perception of magnetic parameters.
  • Le-Qing Wu and David Dickman’s recent discovery of neurons in a pigeon’s vestibular nuclei that respond to information about a bird’s magnetic surroundings. The scientists at Baylor College of Medicine, using electrophysiological single-cell recordings, identified 53 different neurons whose firing patterns are affected by magnetic stimuli. Each neuron is finely tuned to a magnetic field coming from one particular direction, with magnetic field intensity roughly equivalent to that of the geomagnetic field.
  • The search for the magnetite-based magnetoreceptor in animals. Impetus for this came from the discovery of magnetotactic bacteria in the 1970’s, which possess organelles called magnetosomes containing chains of magnetite crystals. Behavioral studies of birds have indicated that magnetic sensing may occur via the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve, which extends to the beak. This type of magnetic sensing is independent of the radical pair-based mechanism in the retina, and may be based on magnetite. Although researchers have tried for years, so far there hasn’t been conclusive proof of intracellular magnetite within neurons in animals. Wu & Dickman's electrophysiological studies of pigeons indicate that magnetite-based magnetoreceptors may be found in the inner ear.
  • Excellent diagrams explaining the hypothetical magnetite-based and retinal-based magnetoreception processes.
  • Scientific journal references to allow the reader to study magnetoreception further.
  • In concluding remarks, the author states that “there are several hypotheses supported by strong, albeit not yet conclusive, data.” Momentum seems to be building, although compared to more mainstream bioscience research, resources put into the study of magnetoreception are miniscule. According to one of the magnetoreception researchers, German geophysicist Michael Winklhofer, “It’s really tough work, but it’s also exciting, because everybody wants to be the first to demonstrate how this extra sense works.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Death Penalty Case Against Aurora Movie Theater Shooter a Waste of Taxpayer Dollars

James E. Holmes, age 27, is the only suspect in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, along with injuries to 70. In a midnight screening of the film The Dark Night Rises, Holmes allegedly shot at the audience with a semi-automatic rifle, tactical shotgun, and handgun. The New York Times reported that his trial is set to begin soon, 2 ½ years after the shooting. 9000 people in Arapahoe County have been issued juror summons for the trial, which is 2% of the population. Jury selection alone could take months, with the trial expected to last 6 to 8 months.

The reason for the delayed and lengthy trial is that prosecutors rejected Holmes’ guilty plea, which would have meant life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. District Attorney George Brauchler seeks the death penalty, which has forced Holmes’ lawyers to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Is the prosecution correct to seek the death penalty?

There is no evidence that Holmes was part of a terrorist group. He was a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado until about a month before the shooting. He dropped out of the program after doing poorly on an oral exam. Obviously an intelligent person, Holmes also had psychiatric problems. Although the details of his problems haven’t been fully made public yet, one of his psychiatrists reported to the campus police a month before the shooting that he made homicidal statements. It’s a reasonable assumption that his psychiatric problems interfered with his academic performance and forced him to drop out of school. Considering the bizarre, destructive, and irrational action he took at the movie theater, only a highly disturbed individual could have perpetrated this shooting.

Colorado has only executed one person since 1977, the last one being 17 years ago. The death penalty in Colorado, like in the rest of the country, isn't a deterrent. Only swift and certain punishment is an effective deterrent, and the death penalty is anything but swift and certain. Even if the death penalty was delivered like in the old days, in a reasonable time frame with reasonable certainty of death, it’s unlikely that this would have deterred someone in Holmes’ state of mind. Typically these mass homicides by disturbed individuals are murder-suicides. (Remember another Colorado tragedy, the Columbine school shootings?). There is no way that any (earthly) punishment would deter this type of crime.

The only way to prevent tragedies like this from happening is to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. As I blogged about in 2013, guns and mentally ill people go together like North Korea and nuclear weapons. I made a policy recommendation back then that has not yet been implemented: “Gun sales and ownership should be banned for anyone who has been treated for a psychiatric disorder—I mean anyone treated at any time in their life.” People with serious mental illness should not have access to firearms. The biggest threat is that they will harm themselves. In the U.S. in 2010, over 38,000 people committed suicide, with more than half using firearms. About 85% of suicide attempts with firearms are successful.

Holmes didn’t commit suicide, but he did legally purchase firearms that were used to murder 12 people. He was in psychiatric treatment. If my policy recommendation had been put into place, he would not have been able to legally purchase these firearms. If he went to the movie theater with a knife in hand, he could have easily been wrestled to the ground before doing much damage. Knowing this, I doubt that Holmes would have even tried it without a firearm.

The NRA has pretty much prevented any kind of gun control at all in the U.S. in recent years. Probably many NRA members would love to see Holmes executed, saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In the case of the Aurora movie theater shooting, a person using a gun killed 12 people. If that person didn't have a gun, he wouldn't have killed that many people. He probably wouldn't have killed anyone at all.

Because of his mental illness, even if convicted Holmes most like won’t be executed. The state is wasting time, money, and resources pursuing the death penalty. They’ll waste more time, money, and resources on handling endless appeals. The average time between sentencing and execution in the U.S. is about 16 years. Even if somehow Holmes exhausts his appeals and is executed, the death penalty will not deter anyone from doing what Holmes allegedly did. To prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future, better gun control is needed.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

IRS May Confiscate Your Property if You Make Frequent Small Cash Deposits

I recently read a New York Times article that I found to be disturbing. The American federal government is supposed to be guided by the rule of law. People are innocent until proven guilty. The government only seizes property if someone is found guilty of a crime. There have been cases of misguided federal laws. I blogged about one last year, a burglar who received 15 years in federal prison for possessing shotgun shells (without a shotgun). This was heartless and a waste of federal prison resources, but at least the burglar was convicted of a crime in a court of law. Imagine having your property seized without even being charged of a crime? That’s what this article describes.

The IRS is operating on the controversial area of law known as “civil asset forfeiture”. This allows law enforcement agents to seize property suspected of being tied to a crime, even in the absence of criminal charges. In the cases reported in the article, the people fall under suspicion by making frequent cash deposits under $10,000. Under the Bank Secrecy Act, banks must report cash deposits over $10,000. Criminals know this, so they try to evade scrutiny by making deposits under this amount. Banks are also supposed to report deposit patterns below $10,000. Making frequent deposits under $10,000 with the intent of evading reporting requirements is known as “structuring”, and is illegal.

What if you operate a cash business, and make frequent small cash deposits? There’s nothing illegal about that, right? There may be grounds for an IRS audit, but certainly not justification for the government to seize your money without charging you with a crime. But this is what’s happening.

The article reports on some cases of innocent people whose property was confiscated by the federal government. Carole Hinders has operated a cash-only Mexican restaurant in Iowa for almost 20 years. She deposited her earnings at a small bank branch. The IRS seized her checking account, amounting to $33,000, without charging her with any crime. The reason for seizure was that her cash deposits were consistently under $10,000, which the IRS perceived as an attempt to avoid reporting. According to Hinders, “my mom had told me if you keep your deposits under $10,000, the bank avoids paperwork. I didn't actually think it had anything to do with the I.R.S.”

In Long Island, owners of a family-run candy and cigarette distributor named Bi-County Distributors made daily cash deposits between $5,000 and $10,000. Investigators were able to obtain a seizure warrant based solely on the pattern of deposits. The federal government seized $447,000 from the business 2 years ago. The business owners have not been charged with any crime. The government has made settlement offers to the owners that require that they surrender a large chunk of the money seized. Jeff Hirsch, one of the owners, said that “We’re just hanging on as a family here. We weren't going to take the settlement, because I was not guilty.”

Army sergeant Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington, VA, saved for his daughters’ college costs by making  small cash deposits from his paychecks at a bank. The government seized $66,000. His settlement to get back his money cost him $21,000, almost 1/3 of his money. As a result, his oldest daughter had to delay college by a year.

These three examples include business owners and individuals who haven’t been charged of any crime. Their property was confiscated by the federal government for the sole reason that they made frequent cash deposits. This is completely un-American, a violation of the rule of law, and the rule that you’re innocent until proven guilty. The federal government simply stole these people’s money, and extorted them a large percentage to get the money back.

Civil asset forfeiture was supposed to be only used against drug dealers, racketeers, and terrorists. Clearly whatever flimsy rationale for this law has been undermined by the federal government’s recent behavior. I don’t see a reason to seize assets of people who have not been convicted of a crime. I fully support severe penalties against people convicted of drug dealing, racketeering, and terrorism. These penalties should include asset forfeiture. But the seizure of assets of innocent people whose only “crime” is that they made frequent small cash deposits is simply expropriation. We’re talking about something that Fidel Castro or another petty dictator could get away with. This is not something that we should accept in the United States.

In this election season, let’s make it clear to our federal representatives and candidates running for office that we will not tolerate federal government expropriation of the property of people who are innocent of any crime. Misguided laws allowing confiscation of private property of innocent people need to be repealed.