Law enforcement abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws has citizens both in Iowa and nationally calling for reform.

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. It's been called a "policing for profit" and "system of legal thievery."

In Iowa, cases involving motorists have recently gotten public attention. In these cases, people driving through the state have been stopped for a traffic violation, their car searched, and large amounts of cash found. Law enforcement makes the assumption that the cash must be drug money, and takes it without making an arrest or filing any charges. A few have been able to hire a lawyer to get their money, or at least part of it, back.

Shaking Down Drivers

In one case, a young man from Chicago, Michael Sanchez-Ratiliff (shown), who had no criminal record), was traveling to California with $19,000 cash for college tuition and living expenses. He was stopped by a Pottawattamie County sheriff's deputy and his money was taken by the arresting officer, who assumed the cash must be drug money. No arrest was made and no charges were filed. The young man was thrown into financial crisis, lost his apartment, and had to delay going to college.

Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police and sheriff's departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.

Retrieving Money is Difficult

For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property. Law enforcement and prosecutors gets to keep a percentage of the money for their own use With the total value of property seized increasing every year, calls for reform are growing louder.

Legislation Needed

The ACLU of Iowa, with a number of other organizations and advocates, is fighting for legislation in Iowa that will do the following:

  • Remove the profit motive for police. Underfunded law enforcement agencies can come to rely on seizures for revenue. Cash and assets that they seize should go to the general fund or other program, not to law enforcement and prosecutors.
  • Require that law enforcement keep a record of and reporting assets that they seize for better transparency and oversight.
  • Allow seizure of assets only if there is a guilty plea or conviction. No more taking money from people who aren’t arrested, charged, or convicted.

Find out more about what is happening with civil forfeiture nationally.

Feb 8 2016