Guest Columnist

Iowa: The state that stole Christmas through civil asset forfeiture

They're fighting everyday Iowans, not big-time criminals

The Grinch and Cindy Lou in Mt. Pleasant. (Ashley Duong/The Union)
The Grinch and Cindy Lou in Mt. Pleasant. (Ashley Duong/The Union)

Iowa is on the naughty list this year for some grinchy behavior.

Instead of taking the Who-pudding and Who-hash, state officials have swept up more than $100 million from citizens over the past 20 years through a controversial law enforcement scheme called civil asset forfeiture. That earns Iowa a D- in a new analysis by a criminal justice reform organization.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to confiscate money or property that is suspected of being involved in criminal activity, but it doesn’t require any criminal charges. Subjects are forced to prove their innocence to get their stuff back, turning the presumption of innocence upside down.

Iowa is among the worst states in the nation for civil asset forfeiture, according to the new report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture” published this month by the Institute for Justice. Our state does not have adequate safeguards against abuse and allows police to collaborate with federal law enforcement to effectively circumvent Iowa’s laws.

In many cases, police agencies directly benefit from the cash and expensive merchandise they take from people. That creates a perverse incentive and gives rise to the term “policing for profit.”

“No one should ever lose their property without first being convicted of a crime, but Iowa lawmakers should be especially concerned about forfeiture abuse now, as local governments face increased fiscal pressure amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lisa Knepper, co-author of the report.

Civil asset forfeiture is meant to stop terrorists and major drug dealers by disrupting their operations. In practice, the livelihoods of everyday people and mom-and-pop business owners are collateral damage in the war on drugs and/or terror.

Iowa provides an important case study in how not to do civil asset forfeiture. More than once, police operating in Iowa have earned national attention (and ridicule) for their heavy-handed tactics.

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In 2013, federal tax agents showed up at the home of an Arnolds Park restaurant owner to say they seized her bank account holding more than $30,000, the Des Moines Register reported. The woman’s staggered deposits from her all-cash business caught investigators’ attention, but she was never formally accused of a crime.

The northwest Iowa restaurateur got her money back a year later with pro bono representation from the Institute for Justice. But others who can’t afford lawyers and don’t catch the attention of a nonprofit law firm have little recourse.

Responding to public pressure, the Iowa Legislature in 2018 passed limited restrictions on the process. Reform advocates, including the Koch network on the right and the ACLU on the left, want to go farther by abolishing civil asset forfeiture and directing criminal forfeiture funds away from individual departments.

Big-time criminals carrying suitcases of cash in stolen sports cars rarely are the targets. The government’s average haul in Iowa is only around $900. Coincidentally, that’s just shy of the average amount Americans are expected to spend on Christmas this year, according to data from the National Retail Federation.

So, in a night’s work, the government can steal Christmas from a family. Happy holidays.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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