Recent arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in an Indiana civil asset forfeiture case are a reminder that Iowa’s work to rein in some systemic abuses didn’t do enough to protect people’s rights.
The Indiana case hinges on whether authorities overstepped the prohibition of excessive fines contained in the Eighth Amendment and, more broadly, if such thresholds apply to the states. Following a conviction for selling a small amount of heroin to an undercover police officer, Tyson Timbs was forced to fight for possession of his 2012 Land Rover, valued at $42,000. Timbs received a six-year suspended sentence and five years probation for his crime. Taken through civil asset forfeiture — a process that allows law enforcement and prosecutors to confiscate personal property believed to have been acquired through ill-gotten means or used as part of criminal activity — Timbs’ new court battle did not require the government to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but for him to prove the government was wrong about how his property was acquired and used.
While we agree with the general concept at the heart of asset forfeiture, that crime shouldn’t pay, we also reiterate our position that these civil proceedings, which do not require arrest or conviction, mock long-standing emphasis on innocent until proved guilty. Those who have property taken are not entitled to an attorney and must sacrifice more personal resources in an attempt to reclaim their property — something made more difficult when property and cash are already seized.
In 2017, the Iowa Legislature passed forfeiture reforms that require people to be convicted in criminal court before property can be forfeited in civil court. But the change applies only to money or assets valued at less than $5,000. The reforms also place more burden on law enforcement and prosecutors, raising the standard of proof to “clear and convincing,” while adding record-keeping requirements.
A 2018 decision by the Iowa Supreme Court provided additional restraints, including clear direction that people cannot be compelled to self-incriminate in order to meet forfeiture response standards. Courts now must determine whether property was legally taken before forfeiture proceedings begin, and a stalling tactic used by law enforcement to suppress the ability of property owners to recoup attorney fees was halted.
None of these changes, however, have limited the ability of local law enforcement to work with federal agencies and reap the benefits of looser rules within a program known as “Equitable Sharing.” And regardless of which agency initiates forfeiture proceedings, profits continued to be funneled into local police budgets — often to provide the types of activities known to produce more forfeitures.
The federal Supreme Court case might provide added individual protections by making clear constitutional prohibitions on excessive fines apply to states. But it, just like recent Iowa reforms, won’t end what many have come to describe as policing for profit.
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As part of their renewed interest in justice reform, federal and state lawmakers must act to disrupt the transfer of wealth and rights abuses that have been allowed to fester under the guise of civil asset forfeiture.
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