Research & Commentary: Iowa Needs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Published September 20, 2016

The laws governing the seizure of assets by law enforcement agencies in Iowa are in dire need of reform. Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil judicial forfeiture, is a controversial legal process through which law enforcement agencies take personal assets from individuals or groups merely suspected of a crime or illegal activity. Three states have essentially abolished the practice of asset forfeiture – Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina – and more than a dozen other states have made significant forfeiture reforms.

Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture laws a grade of D-, one of the lowest grades in the country. The standard of proof required for seizure differs from state to state. In Iowa, the government is only required to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence the property to be seized is related to a previously committed crime. Iowa places the burden of proof on the property owner, not the government. After property is seized, Iowa law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds. IJ argues this gives law enforcement agencies a strong incentive to seize property whenever possible.

One glaring problem with Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture program is a lack of transparency. Current state law contains no requirement for maintaining records of assets forfeited. IJ was able to determine the extent of forfeited assets due to a requirement that mandates all forfeiture proceeds be directed to the Iowa County Attorneys Association. IJ used these records to determine Iowa law enforcement agencies forfeited “an average of more than $3 million per calendar year between 2009 and 2013, or almost $16 million in total.”

In a recent story published by the Des Moines Register, a reporter used public records requests to study the growth of civil asset forfeiture among state and local law enforcement agencies in Iowa. The data collected by the Register found the state’s civil forfeiture laws were being used to pump millions of dollars into local law enforcement agency budgets each year, often with no criminal charges being filed.

The Register’s investigation and data analysis found more than $55 million in cash have been seized from 19,000 people since 1985 under Iowa’s forfeiture laws. It also found the amount of seizures has increased dramatically in recent years. In 1986, the first full year in which data was collected on seizures, statewide cash forfeitures totaled about $49,000. In 2014, law enforcement agencies in the state seized a record $4.9 million in cash and 129 vehicles.

The primary effort during the most recent session would have allowed forfeitures only in cases resulting in criminal convictions. Supporters of the bill argued the current forfeiture law gives law enforcement agencies economic incentives to seize property, corrupting them and penalizing innocent property owners.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, advocates eliminating forfeitures altogether, except in cases of maritime and customs law. He also offers five recommendations for states not willing to halt all forfeitures: place seized revenues in neutral funds, increase the standard of proof for seizure to require “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, make the tracking of seized assets more transparent, and eliminate “equitable sharing” arrangements, which allow law enforcement agencies to evade state restrictions on the use of forfeited funds.

Assets should be seized only when crimes have been committed and convictions have been made, and law enforcement officials should not be incentivized to seize any more property than is necessary and justified.

The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.

New Data Show Iowa’s Growing Take of Personal Property
This article by Jason Clayworth of the Des Moines Register examines the results of a study conducted by the Register that examined the use of forfeiture laws in Iowa. “Iowa law enforcement agencies confiscate cash, vehicles and real estate from at least 1,000 people each year as part of a state program in which no proof of crime is required before the government lays claim to personal belongings,” wrote Clayworth.

Playing Both ‘Cops and Robbers’ on Asset Forfeiture
Jesse Hathaway, managing editor of Budget & Tax News, examines in this article a new digital system that allows highway patrolmen to use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize individuals’ assets stored in bank accounts or on prepaid debit cards at the press of a button. “Civil asset forfeiture creates too many perverse economic incentives. However well-intentioned the idea may be, the practice of civil asset forfeiture has been corrupted and now infringes on Americans’ right to be free from harassment by money-hungry agents of the government,” wrote Hathaway.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: When Good Intentions Go Awry
In this testimony given before the Mississippi Asset Forfeiture Transparency Task Force, John Malcolm of The Heritage Foundation examines forfeiture in Mississippi and other states and argues for reform. “Civil asset forfeiture should remain focused on its original purpose of depriving criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but we must be sure that it is criminals and only criminals who are being impacted,” said Malcolm.

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas–Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” a hypothesis their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics confirms. 

Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses has drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.

Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
The Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Budget & Tax News and The Heartland Institute’s website.

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