Last time we were looking at the issue of civil forfeiture in Iowa, and how it is apparent that some cases appear to involve what amounts to theft by law enforcement officers across the state. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take money or other assets from those suspected of criminal activity without having to charge and prove that anyone committed a crime.
One case from this year highlights the problem. A man from Chicago was traveling to California, looking for better educational opportunity. He took $19,000, which included money he had saved up and money his grandmother gave to him.
He and his uncle were stopped on I-80 in Iowa, with the sheriff's deputy alleging they were traveling at 5 miles per hour over the speed limit. They had no criminal record and a search of the vehicle turned up no drugs.
Yet, the deputy seized the cash on the vague assertion that it "must be" linked to criminal activity. In addition to the unfairness of the seizure, is the disaster it created in his personal life, leading to the loss of his apartment in Chicago, which caused other credit issues and the stopping of plans to start college.
Because law enforcement is allowed to keep the funds seized in forfeiture cases, there is a conflict of interest. They have a strong incentive to seize as much cash as possible because most of the cases are never challenged and they never have to bother with the complexity of bringing a criminal case. This has generated $43 million in seizures in the last six years.
Many of the seizures are not large enough to warrant the legal cost for individuals to get them back, which means law enforcement never has to prove the validity of the seizure. In the case of the man's $19,000, he had to spend $7,000 in legal fees to force the sheriff's department to return his money.
This system preys on the inherent coercive power of law enforcement, the ignorance of ordinary people who do not realize they need not consent to a search during most traffic stops, and the legal problems in retrieving forfeit property illegal seized.
Source: desmoinesregister.com, "Iowa forfeiture: A 'system of legal thievery'?" Jason Clayworth and Grant Rodgers, April 4, 2015