Civil asset forfeiture limits signed into law

Civil liberties groups say bill is an improvement but more can be done

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DES MOINES — A law giving Iowans more protection from having their assets seized by law enforcement was signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad Tuesday.

Senate File 446, which was approved 49-0 in the Senate and 95-1 in the House, is an improvement on Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture law, according to civil liberties groups.

Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture allows the government to permanently keep property without charging anyone with a crime or getting a conviction.

The American Civil Liberties Union called Iowa’s law one of the worst in the country because it incentivized “policing for profit.”

“No law enforcement official should be able to simply take money or assets from people without a conviction for a crime,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer.

Under the new law, if a property is valued at under $5,000, the owner must first be convicted in criminal court before their property can be forfeited in civil court. Compared with the other dozen states with criminal-conviction requirements, Iowa’s threshold is by far the lowest, according to the Institute for Justice.

According to data analysis by the Institute, out of all cash forfeitures in 2015, half were under $845. In fact, just 14 percent of cash forfeitures were over the $5,000 threshold.

SF 446 shifts the burden of proof from the property’s owners to law enforcement and prosecutors, raises the standard of proof to “clear and convincing” and implements record-keeping requirements.

Still, the law doesn’t go far enough, according to the civil liberties groups.

“There is definitely more work to be done to improve this law,” Stringer said. “We believe that a conviction should always be required before seizing assets.”

He also called for the Legislature to remove the “profit incentive” for law enforcement that allows agencies to keep whatever it takes from motorists and others.

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

In its analysis of the law, the Legislative Services Agency said the bill will have an “indeterminable” fiscal impact because there may be fewer cash forfeiture proceeds retained by law enforcement agencies.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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