Attacking the Taxman

James Farmer and Cliff Williams do their best to irk the IRS

If ever there was a best-case scenario for having the Internal Revenue Service take away your car for nonpayment of taxes, Houston attorney James Farmer probably experienced it April 22.

Farmer's long-running battle with the IRS came to a head that day, and for someone who sees himself eventually taking on the powerful agency before a jury of his tax-hating peers, things went pretty well.

For reasons known only to themselves, the IRS agents chose not to have the car towed from Farmer's house. Instead, they waited until he and his wife drove to church, of all places -- to watch his four-year-old son perform in something called an Early Childhood Ministries musical program.

That wholesome apple-pie scene was interrupted by IRS agents arriving with a tow truck, but any thoughts of a quick getaway were dashed when Farmer began indulging in his specialty -- citing chapter and verse of IRS rules and procedures; regulations that most citizens don't know and which the agency, in its typical arrogance, sometimes ignores for expediency's sake.

He also threw in some of his far-out constitutional arguments. The way Farmer and his lawyer read the laws setting up the income tax, only federal employees and residents of Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands or Guam have to pay federal taxes on their incomes.

The argument, contained in a dense 17-page letter Farmer mailed to the IRS two weeks prior to the towing incident, is difficult for anyone to follow, much less a tow-truck driver and a federal bureaucrat standing on a parking lot on a spring morning.

After Farmer asked in vain for various obscure documents he says the IRS needed to show to take the car away, the scene quickly degenerated into a hair-splitting farce.

The IRS agent in charge "tried to trick me into violating the peace," Farmer said in a sworn affidavit. "She asked me pleasantly, 'Then you are not going to let us take the car?' Knowing that she was trying to set me up for charges of hindering federal agents, I answered, 'I am not going to break the peace, but you are stealing my car. You are all acting illegally, and you are nothing but thieves.' "

The IRS agent, Farmer continued, "then tried to trick me into voluntarily giving the car away. She said, 'Then you are voluntarily turning the car over to us?' I said, 'No, I'm not giving you the car, but I'm not going to disturb the peace. I'm putting the key on top of the car knowing that only a thief will steal it.' "

With that, the car was hooked up and towed away.
For Farmer, it was nothing new. Much of his recent life, it seems, has been devoted to tortured arguments with exasperated IRS officials. He's filed a $50million civil suit against the agency, including an organized-crime RICO claim; he's still fighting over $280,000 or so in back taxes the feds say he owes from the past ten years; and he's tying up the dockets of federal courts with arguments over what the Founding Fathers and Congress meant by such terms as "person" and "income."

Farmer got the car back this month: The IRS had indeed failed to follow its procedures properly, he says. But that temporary victory is likely to be one of few as he and some colleagues mount a quixotic, romanticized and sometimes ridiculous challenge to the powerful IRS, annoying judges and magistrates all along the way.

The 47-year-old lawyer is doing it, he says, because that's what those Founding Fathers would have wanted. "I look at it like this," he says. "How many people risk their lives on a daily basis to get to America? Freedom is worth more than life. My CPA asked me -- and I can't blame him, because I know the IRS has every CPA in its pocket -- he asked me, 'What would it take for you to stop all this?' I just said, 'They'll have to kill me.' "

Such flowery, melodramatic sentiments cause the IRS to do little more than roll its bureaucratic eyes. Although agents can't comment on specific cases, Farmer in their view is just another in a long line of tax protesters who misread history and the Constitution to get out of paying their fair share of taxes.

Broad challenges to the IRS code and income taxes in general have been heard in courts and dismissed, says agency spokesman Steve Yost. Taxpayers have tried to argue that filling out tax forms violates the Fifth Amendment, that the bill creating the IRS was never properly passed into law, or that only those declared citizens via the 13th, 14th or 15th amendments -- mostly freed slaves -- are subject to the law.

"As these things have been tried and ruled in favor of the government, a lot of judges will now just toss them out summarily," Yost says. "Unless you're bringing up things specific to your case, like the agency didn't follow proper procedures -- well, arguing that the tax system is unconstitutional isn't going to get anybody very far in 1998."

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