Finally, Iowa has a new law governing civil asset forfeiture, one that protects against the many abuses possible when law enforcement decides to take property and assets from an individual.
For years, Iowa’s civil forfeiture laws have been among the worst in the country. The laws incentivized 'policing for profit' – and allowed government agencies to take and keep peoples’ property without a conviction or even an arrest.
No law enforcement official should be able to simply take money or assets from people without a conviction for a crime. As part of a broad coalition of Iowans working for reform of civil forfeiture, the ACLU of Iowa is elated to see the bipartisan consensus among the legislature and the Governor’s Office on this important issue.
This new law, signed May 9 by Gov. Terry Branstad, is an important step in the right direction. In the past, in many cases in Iowa, there wasn’t even an arrest or any charges filed before property was taken. Now the law protects more Iowans from government overreach.
One element of the law is that property valued at less than $5,000 cannot be taken without a criminal conviction first. This means the abuses of due process—which previously were legal—are now illegal in Iowa for the majority of forfeitures.
Additionally, this law raises the standard of proof in forfeiture actions closer to that of what is required in a criminal conviction.
Another element of the law is requiring law enforcement to begin keeping records of the money and property it seizes. That’s just good basic government record-keeping, and it will make law enforcement more accountable for its actions. It will help lawmakers and the public track patterns of abuse by law enforcement, which could support further reforms.
That said, there is definitely more work to be done to improve this law. We believe that a conviction should always be required before seizing assets. We’d like to see civil asset forfeiture prohibited for property at any value—not just that of less than $5,000.
We’d also like to see removing the profit incentive for law enforcement. Currently, a law enforcement agency can keep whatever it takes from motorists and others. Clearly, that’s something the Iowa Legislature needs to change.