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Iowa becomes latest state to tackle asset forfeiture laws, but still has a long way to go

Iowa joins a handful of states that is tackling the problem of civil asset forfeiture, but has a long way to go, according to one advocacy group. (Getty Images)

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill on Tuesday that tightens Iowa's civil forfeiture laws, requiring a criminal conviction before state authorities can seize a citizen's property.

Civil forfeiture laws allow federal, state, and local authorities to seize property, including money, and personal items, from a citizen. Most states — including Iowa, before the passage of this bill — allow property to be seized without criminal conviction, requiring only a suspicion of illegal activity for legal seizure.

The United States Department of Justice claims that the practice is designed to remove "the proceeds of crime and other assets relied upon by criminals and their associates to perpetuate their criminal activity against our society.”

The new law, SF 446 states that if the property to be seized is valued under $5,000, then the state must obtain a conviction in criminal court with clear and convincing evidence before the property can be forfeited in a civil court. Also, the law requires agencies to keep records of the value of the seized property, including an itemized list of expenditures spent using the proceeds of the forfeited property.

According to the Institute for Justice, despite Iowa's new law, the requirements for the success of civil forfeiture to take place against a citizen are still the lowest when compared to the dozen other states that require criminal conviction before seizure. Should the property value above $5,000, no criminal conviction is required before the state can seize a citizen's property, even after the new law takes effect..

By comparison, California requires a criminal conviction if the property is valued under $40,000 before seizure can occur. Ohio, like Iowa, also has a low value requirement, but requires a criminal conviction if the property is valued under $15,000.

Data analysis from the Institute for Justice, however, shows that in 2015, half of all cash forfeitures were under $845. Furthermore, only 14 percent of forfeiture cases saw value over $5,000 seized.

“Iowa has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the nation, and we hope this legislation will build momentum for further reforms,” said IJ Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “Along with our coalition partner at the ACLU of Iowa, we will keep fighting until Iowa’s rigged system is abolished, once and for all.”

“No one should mistake this bill for a comprehensive fix of Iowa’s shameful forfeiture laws,” McGrath said. “Far too many underlying issues remain unaddressed, including the perverse financial incentives that warp law enforcement priorities to pursue cash instead of criminals.”

However, the Institute for Justice report says it has identified a flaw within the bill concerning the property rights of Iowans.

"Prosecutors do not have to file a forfeiture proceeding until 180 days after the criminal prosecution is resolved, which itself can take months, if not years," noted IJ.

“This change will keep the courthouse doors shut for Iowans desperate to regain their property,” McGrath said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Furthermore, according to IJ, SF 446 does nothing to close the "equitable sharing" loophole, which allows local and state authorities to utilize federal agencies who operate under federal laws, to get around restrictive state forfeiture laws. The local or state authorities who cooperated with the federal agencies can potentially take 80 percent of the federally seized assets under the equitable sharing program.

In other words, local and state authorities can circumvent the entire law simply by turning property over to federal authorities, which will allow them to still obtain 80 cents on the dollar for all property seized.

The Institute reports that from 2000 to 2013, payments to local and state agencies from the Department of Justice more than tripled under the equitable sharing program. This resulted in $4.7 billion being paid out to local and state agencies, with $1.1 billion being received by the Treasury Department under the program.

Other states with loose civil forfeiture laws have recently begun to tighten them, including the passage of a law in North Dakota that not only required criminal convictions before asset forfeiture could take place, but restricted the use of the equitable sharing program to carry out property seizures.

In December, Texas Sen. Konni Burton (R) introduced legislation that would also require a criminal conviction before asset seizure, and restricts use of the equitable sharing program.


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