Iowa has some of the “worst civil forfeiture laws in the country,” according to a new study released by the Institute for Justice on November 10.

IJ released an updated version of their “Policing for Profit” report, a state-by-state examination of civil forfeiture laws across the United States. The study, which is subtitled “The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” ranks Iowa with a “D-” rating in terms of its civil forfeiture laws, which are described in the report as “terrible” and “Draconian.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.”

“Not only does Iowa have some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country,” the IJ study concludes, “but state and local law enforcement agencies face virtually no public accountability for their forfeiture actions.”

“State law contains no provision for maintaining records of assets forfeited or for making reports of forfeitures to a centralized agency. However, state law does require that 10 percent of all forfeiture proceeds be directed to the Iowa County Attorneys Association. The Institute for Justice filed an Iowa Open Records Law request and was able to use records of proceeds received by the ICAA to estimate the value of forfeited assets.”

After this request was answered, IJ found records indicating that “Iowa law enforcement agencies forfeited an average of more than $3 million per calendar year between 2009 and 2013, or almost $16 million in total.”

The IJ, founded in 1991, is a libertarian public interest law firm that describes itself as “the National Law Firm for Liberty.” The study was authored by IJ members Dick Carpenter, Lisa Knepper, Angela Erickson and Jennifer McDonald, with contributions from Wesley Hottot and Keith Diggs.

Carpenter, IJ Director of Strategic Research, says that research shows that financial incentives “baked into civil forfeiture laws” influence the behavior of law enforcement.

“When laws make taking property relatively easy and lucrative for law enforcement,” Carpenter writes in a public statement issued on November 10, “it should be no surprise to see agencies take advantage.”

The “End Civil Forfeiture” initiative by IJ reports that “Eighty percent of people from whom the federal government seized property for forfeiture were never even charged with a crime.”

Data obtained by IJ indicates that civil forfeiture “is easier for law enforcement because it does not require a conviction, while criminal forfeiture does.” The IJ further states that the “Department of Justice took advantage of easier civil procedures in 87 percent of forfeiture cases from 1997 to 2013.”

IJ Director of Activism and Coalitions Christina Walsh reports that “forfeiture revenue has exploded” nationwide.

“Since 2001, annual federal forfeiture revenue has increased from less than $500 million to more than $5 billion in 2014—a tenfold increase in just 14 years. And available data show forfeiture revenue across 14 states more than doubling from 2002 to 2013.”

In a statement issued to Iowa Free Press by American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Legislative Director Dane Schumann, the organization agreed with many of the IJ findings:

“Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture laws are some of the worst in the country. Police need to only have ‘probable cause’ to believe a person’s property—like cash, vehicles or other personal effects—are the proceeds or instrumentality of a crime in order to take that property under civil forfeiture.  And the person doesn’t even need to be charged with a crime. Getting the property returned is such a lengthy, costly and difficult process that many people just give up.”

Schumann says the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws “do not respect due process rights” and “they must be reformed.”

“The ACLU of Iowa will urge lawmakers to abolish civil asset forfeiture to provide defendants’ property the same due process rights that they have in the criminal justice system.  Lawmakers should eliminate the profit motive for law enforcement and county attorneys to engage in civil forfeiture proceedings by devoting forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general fund and establish clear reporting requirements to improve the process’s transparency.”

In the study’s Executive Summary, the authors propose the following:

“The best solution would be to simply abolish civil forfeiture. Short of that, lawmakers should eliminate financial incentives to take property, bolster property rights and due process protections, and demand transparency for forfeiture activity and spending. No one should lose property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement agencies should not profit from taking people’s property.”

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