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Civil forfeitures are good business for Iowa law enforcement

The Iowa Supreme Court is considering arguments in a case of civil forfeiture, involving a traffic stop on I-80, where an Iowa State Patrol trooper seized $33,100 in cash and a small amount of marijuana. The driver was charged, but acquitted, of marijuana possession, but the state patrol kept his cash.

The topic of civil forfeiture related to suspected criminal activity has become controversial, as the practice has grown in use. Iowa law enforcement agencies have seized $43 million during the last six years and many cases involve individuals who were never charged with any crimes. 

The practice is seen as corrosive of constitutional rights because departments can profit by stopping anyone who may look like they could be an easy mark. In addition, officers often use a pretext of a traffic violation, such as a nonfunctioning taillight, a minor speeding violation or weaving in a lane as grounds for the stop.

In the course of the traffic stop, the officer typically asks for permission to search the vehicle. Most people, unaware that they have a constitutional right to refuse this request, consent to the search.

Because the stops are begun on some minor pretext, if the officer does not find any cash, he can merely send the motorist on their way, and appear benevolent in letting them off easy.

During the search, if the officer finds any cash, it is often seized on often very tenuous grounds, with the officer claiming they felt the cash was related to possible criminal activity.

Once this occurs, the motorist is then faced with a daunting problem. They have to sue in a civil proceeding, where they essentially have to prove they are innocent to regain custody of their cash. This can be expensive, sometimes eating up much of what was seized.

Next time, we will look at what happens to an innocent individual subjected to this activity and how it can devastate their life and their finances.

Source: desmoinesregister.com, "Did Iowa trooper have right to seize $33,000 over pot bust?" Grant Rodgers, September 17, 2015

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