Iowa Senator Wants to Protect Innocent People’s Property from the Clutches of Forfeiture

Nearly a year after The Des Moines Register‘s groundbreaking investigative report on abuse of Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture laws, legislation was introduced in the Iowa Senate to reform the state’s forfeiture laws to protect innocent property owners from this pernicious form of government overreach. Unfortunately, it appears lawmakers want to further study the issue before they consider changes.

Recently, state Sen. Charles Schneider (R-West Des Moines) introduced SF 2166, which would require a criminal conviction before property allegedly connected to a crime can be subjected to forfeiture proceedings. It also removes the perverse profit motive often associated with forfeiture.

Schneider’s forfeiture reform bill was introduced after the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, released the second edition of Policing for Profit, a comprehensive look at state forfeiture laws. The Institute for Justice gave the Iowa a "D-" for its forfeiture laws. According to the report, Iowa allows property to be forfeited based on a low evidentiary standard and the burden of proof falls on the property owner, who may never be charged with a crime. Additionally, law enforcement can keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures.

Needless to say, changes are long overdue. In April 2015, The Des Moines Register found that law enforcement in the Hawkeye State had used forfeiture laws more than 5,200 times since 2009, with seizures totaling almost $43 million. "A sampling of about 600 forfeiture cases from the Iowa counties that seized the most property over the past six years," the paper noted, "revealed dozens of instances with no record of an arrest or criminal charges."

Michael Sanchez-Ratliff was one of the innocent owners whose money was wrongly seized. The young man was traveling with a friend from Chicago to California with his life-savings, around $19,000 in cash. The cash was seized by the Pottawattamie County sheriff’s deputy during a routine traffic stop. Sanchez-Ratliff, who was barely driving over the speed limit, did not have a record and deputies were unable to find any drugs in the car after a sweep. Unfortunately, he seized Sanchez-Ratliff’s cash because he believed it was, somehow, connected to illicit activity.

After an eight-month court battle, Sanchez-Ratliff won a court battle over the seizure, when an Iowa judge ruled in his favor. The victory was bittersweet. Sanchez-Ratliff was evicted from his apartment because he could not pay rent and he spent more than $6,800 in attorney’s fees. He got back just under $12,000 of the nearly $19,000 that was seized.

In a recent op-ed, Schneider explained that his legislation would have reformed Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture laws to restore the presumption of innocence and due process.

"A person who claims to be an innocent owner has the burden of proving they had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the alleged illegal use of their property. This flips the American legal tradition of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head and arguably is inconsistent with the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process and the Fifth Amendment’s protection against takings," Schneider wrote. "Another issue is that Iowa law enforcement agencies retain 100 percent of all proceeds from forfeited property. This creates an incentive, or at least the perception of an incentive, for law enforcement to seize property whenever possible."

"My bill addresses these issues. It repeals Iowa’s use of civil forfeiture and replaces it with a process called ‘criminal forfeiture,’ which places the burden on the government to prove a person’s guilt before their property can be forfeited," the senator explained. "It removes even the appearance of a profit motive by requiring proceeds from forfeited property to be deposited in the state’s general fund."

The Des Moines Register reports that SF 2166 was amended to create an interim study committee on the issue. Generally, a study committee is where good ideas, such as Schneider’s bill, are stalled or picked apart until there is not much left. Maybe this time, it will be different.