Iowa Disbands State-Sanctioned Highway Robbery Unit

criminal-asset-forfeiture1The Iowa Department of Public Safety announced this week that it disbanded its drug interdiction team. The unit, which enforced the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, was criticized for repeatedly seizing private property and turning it over to the state without any form of due process.

According to the Institute for Justice, one of the nation’s premier public interest law firms, Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture laws are some of the worst in the country. Under the laws, the burden of proof that property has not been used for criminal activity lies with the property owners instead of the state, meaning those who have had their property wrongfully seized must prove that they were not involved in illegal actions.

An investigation by the Des Moines Register revealed that the state seized cash from more than 19,000 people over the last two decades valued around $55 million, with nearly $43 million seized in the past six years alone.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice, said the decision to disband the unit “…is an important step to protect Iowans’ property and due process rights from forfeiture abuse, but the state must do more.”

iowa-state-patrol-carCivil asset forfeiture laws like those in Iowa allow state and local authorities to use their policing powers for profit. When officers stop people carrying large sums of cash, the officers can seize the it until the owners essentially prove a negative, that the cash has not been used for illegal purposes.

Simply put, Iowa’s law is state-sanctioned highway robbery, with 90% of forfeiture proceeds going directly to law enforcement and the other 10% going for use by the Iowa Attorney General’s office and the state’s public safety departments. It is telling that despite accusations of criminal conduct leading to the seizures, those whose were property seized by the state are rarely arrested, with most are simply sent on their way without any further investigation.

Making a bad situation worse is that since these seizures are considered civil rather than criminal penalties, those who have had their assets seized must handle the matter in civil courts where there is no right to a state-appointed attorney. As a result, the poorest citizens who have had their assets seized often cannot afford a lawyer to challenge the state’s actions.

“If they’re not charging people with crimes, how can you describe this in any other way than a system of legal thievery?” said attorney Glen Downey, who represents clients fighting the state to get their property back.

State Senator Charles Schneider recognized this problem during the last legislative session, introducing a bill that would shift the burden of proof to the government before seizing any property or assets, but the bill was killed in committee. Hopefully his efforts will yield better results in the next legislative session.

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