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Obviously criminals shouldn't profit from their crimes. And I think that we can all agree that a car used in a drive-by shooting or purchased with money from a bank robbery can be confiscated by police. But what about when law enforcement seizes assets before a criminal conviction, or before criminal charges are even filed?
Recent studies are showing law enforcement officials are taking advantage of civil forfeiture laws more than ever. In fact, citizens lost more property to police in 2014 than they did to burglars. And new information is coming to light indicating police are seizing assets from people without any proof of a crime. So how is all this even legal?
The Newton Daily News is reporting that law enforcement agencies in Iowa are seizing cash, vehicles, and other private property from over 1,000 people a year, and all "without proof the property was acquired as a result of a crime or was being used to help people commit crimes." According to the paper, Polk County alone has added "$18 million in seized cash and the proceeds from nearly 1,500 confiscated vehicles to the budgets of local and state law enforcement agencies since 1985."
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone defended the forfeiture totals as good work on the part of police. "A lot of this revolves around the drug trade," he told the Newton Daily News, "and they're making money off of people's addictions and whatever other circumstances they have that leads them into using drugs. They shouldn't profit from that." But analysis of Iowa's law enforcement agency data shows that, in many instances of civil forfeiture, no criminal charges were ever filed against the person whose property was seized.
Federal law allows for the criminal forfeiture of property derived from or involved in criminal activity. But states have often expanded on the idea, even piggybacking on federal agencies and investigations to seize property. And law enforcement agencies in many states are allowed to claim civil forfeiture without filing criminal charges or providing any proof that the property was tied to criminal behavior. And, in most cases, the burden is on the person whose property was seized to prove that they are innocent or acted reasonably to prevent the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture.
There has been some pushback on civil forfeitures, even in Iowa. State Senator Charles Schneider told the Newton Daily News he is trying to resurrect a failed bill that would only permit forfeitures in cases that result in criminal convictions "My main concern is that assets can be forfeited to the state without a person even being charged with a crime," Schenider said, "and I think that runs afoul of the Constitution."
If you've been charged with a crime, or if you've had property seized without ever being charged with a crime, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.