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When can Iowa cops seize your property before a conviction?

Recently, the libertarian Reason magazine called attention to Linn County. The Sheriff's Office there has just purchased a BearCat G2 armored vehicle for $297,061. They apparently got the money for the military vehicle through civil asset forfeiture.

Civil asset forfeiture is where law enforcement seizes property deemed to have a connection to criminal activity. This is often done before the owner has been found guilty of any crime. It's possible to get the property back, but only by proving to a court that it had no connection to crime. Not only is that quite difficult to do, but also many defendants don't have the time or money to do so. Law enforcement gets to keep the property if the defendant fails to challenge its status successfully.

Proponents of civil asset forfeiture argue that it cuts off the tools people use to commit crimes and prevents criminals from enjoying the proceeds of criminal behavior. However, studies have shown that the use of civil asset forfeiture has little real impact on crime rates. Instead, it provides an incentive to "police for profit" -- fund the department or buy extras (like military vehicles) with the money departments seize.

Civil asset forfeiture in Iowa

The use of civil asset forfeiture in Iowa has been controversial in Iowa and nationwide. In 2017, Iowa passed a law meant to rein in abusive forms of civil asset forfeiture. Previously, law enforcement was able to seize property based merely on a suspicion of criminal activity. The new law required a criminal conviction before property worth less than $5,000 could be seized. However, police can still seize property worth more than $5,000 based on suspicion alone.

Last year, the Iowa Supreme Court further reined in the practice, ruling that:

  • A court must decide whether law enforcement acted properly when seizing the assets before granting a department's claim against them.
  • Prosecutors must not drop asset forfeiture cases just before the challenge hearing in order to avoid having to pay the owner's legal fees.
  • Law enforcement can't require people to answer questions about the seized property as a condition of having it returned.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that civil asset forfeiture constitutes a fine. As such, it should be guided by the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines. However, the high court did not specify what counts as an excessive fine or lay out any rules for limiting civil asset forfeiture.

In any event, civil asset forfeiture is an ongoing issue in Iowa and across the United States. If law enforcement has seized your car, money or other assets over alleged criminal activity, be sure to let your criminal defense attorney know.

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