Staff Editorial

Another step toward reining in civil forfeiture

The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

State Supreme Court justices participating in a civil asset forfeiture case review unanimously decided enough isn’t being done to protect individual rights. It’s the latest in a small string of changes to state forfeiture laws, none of which have gone far enough.

The fundamental justification of forfeiture — that crime shouldn’t pay — isn’t at issue. Most Iowans agree proceeds from criminal activity can and should be seized. But in the most recent case before the court, like numerous others, the individuals involved faced no criminal charges. Property was taken on the suspicion of criminal activity. Instead of law enforcement needing to prove the illicit origin of what was seized, the onus is placed on the property owner.

According to research by this board in 2015, state forfeiture cases result in about $3 million each year for law enforcement coffers. Federal activities add about another $4 million per year.

Additional protections were given to Iowans last year by the Legislature. Senate File 446 mandated the government can keep property valued under $5,000 only if the owner is criminally convicted. Burden of proof also was shifted from the property owner by requiring law enforcement and criminal prosecutors to rely on a higher standard of “clear and convincing” evidence. Finally, minimal transparency was instituted to help the public track profits from forfeiture.

The Iowa Supreme Court opinion builds on these protections by delineating the rights of people attempting to reclaim property. People cannot, for instance, be compelled to self-incrimate in order to meet forfeiture response standards. Courts must first determine if property was legally seized before beginning forfeiture proceedings. And a tactic sometimes used to suppress the ability of owners to recoup attorney fees was rejected.

These changes will help protect individual rights while continuing to allow police to thwart criminal activity. But more must be done.

We renew our call that law enforcement not directly benefit from all forfeiture proceeds. Current policies create at least the appearance of policing for profit.

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Transparency must become a higher priority. The public deserves an agency-by-agency breakdown of seized property, expenses, disbursements and purchases ultimately made with those funds.

Most important, all forfeitures should be linked to criminal convictions.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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