Staff Editorials

Forfeiture reforms: A step in the right direction

The State Capitol is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The State Capitol is illuminated by the sunset in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Kudos to state legislators for passing long overdue civil asset forfeiture reforms. Senate File 446 should be quickly signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad.

Senate File 446 provides vital restraints to property seizures by Iowa law enforcement and prosecutors that funnel an average $3 million each year in cash alone from private wallets into local coffers. These are proceeds, presumably taken from illicit drug or other criminal activity, swept purposefully back into the system that generated them, creating at least the perception of policing for profit.

As evidenced by the bill’s strong bipartisan support, the current system offends everyone, conservative or liberal, who respects due process, values property rights or seeks basic fairness.

One of the most important reforms — a change this editorial board and others have demanded — is binding state property seizure to criminal conviction. If the government doesn’t bring charges, or isn’t able to prove its case, seized property valued at $5,000 or less must be returned.

And, even when a conviction is reached, owners are entitled to a hearing to determine whether the value of seized property aligns with the severity of the crime. Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies must present “clear and convincing” evidence that it does — a higher standard of proof than the current law requires.

And in a win for transparency, agencies accepting forfeited property will be required to keep minimal public records.

Most Iowa forfeitures, according to Legislative Services Agency documentation, fall under the $5,000 threshold. Last fiscal year, 822 cash forfeitures brought $2.6 million to state and local coffers, making an average value of about $3,200 per incident.

Still lawmakers need to keep steady watch to ensure new rules have the intended effect.


And, more generally, we hope legislators don’t view forfeiture as “fixed.” The bill offers solid steps toward equity and fairness, but it doesn’t win the race.

Under the new law, assets seized through police activity will continue to fund police. The system still does not provide public defenders in civil forfeiture proceedings for those without the means to hire counsel.

State law does not change or limit federally-led initiatives, or the ability of local agencies to benefit from them.

Forfeiture will become more fair with these changes, but more must be done.

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