Starting in July, Iowa residents will enjoy greater protection from local and state government agencies that want to seize and keep citizens’ property without criminal convictions through a process called civil-asset forfeiture.
Gov. Terry Branstad (R) in May signed into law a bill requiring law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors to obtain a criminal conviction before transferring ownership of seized assets or property to the government if the property is worth less than $5,000.
The law also requires police departments to keep records of seized property, including its value and how the police spent or disposed of the forfeited assets.
Putting Property on Trial
Lee McGrath, a senior legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice, says civil-asset forfeiture violates common sense and constitutional principles.
“Civil forfeiture is a civil litigation in which the property is charged with a crime and the person isn’t charged at all,” McGrath said. “In civil forfeiture, your guilt is irrelevant, and more importantly, your acquittal is irrelevant.”
Don Racheter, president of the Public Interest Institute, says the new law makes two main changes.
“It changes the burden of proof,” Racheter said. “It used to be that the person who had their stuff seized had to prove it was theirs and that it wasn’t criminal. Now, the government has to prove that the property was used for something nefarious. The second thing is they can’t take under $5,000 without an actual conviction.”
Cites Room for Improvement
Racheter says there are three ways lawmakers can improve upon the new law.
“First of all, the state should require a criminal conviction in all cases, not just for those under $5,000,” Racheter said. “There have been documented cases in which people have more than $5,000 for legitimate reasons.
“They ought to change where the money goes,” Racheter said. “Right now, it goes to the law-enforcement agency that seizes it. They have a tremendous conflict of interest, and they have a tremendous incentive to harass people. They ought to put the money into the general fund for the state as a whole.
“If somebody’s stuff is taken and they challenge it in court and prevail, then the government should have to pay their legal bills,” Racheter said. “In some cases, the legal bills are more than the money they’re fighting over.”