Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process that allows law enforcement officials to seize property suspected of having been involved in certain criminal activity. Any property that has been used to facilitate a crime; furnished in an exchange that is a crime; or the proceeds of a crime is subject to seizure and eventual forfeiture.
In fact, the owner of the property doesn’t even need to be guilty of a crime. Technically speaking, civil asset forfeiture proceedings charge the property itself with criminal involvement.
Civil forfeiture is intended to provide law enforcement with a tool they can use to go after organized crime, specifically drug traffickers. The justification for this practice is predicated on the grounds that it allows law enforcement to seize the assets and ill-gotten gains of criminals and, in turn, use the property and proceeds to fight against other similar criminal activity.
For the most part, civil forfeiture laws have been very successful in cracking down on drug trafficking and other serious organized crime. However, there have also been numerous cases, throughout the U.S., where civil forfeiture has been employed in lesser degrees of suspected criminal activity.
Since the burden of proof for forfeiture of property is lower, the accused could be completely innocent and yet have property forfeited without appropriate due process. In many of these low-profile cases, the legal cost to prove innocence and reclaim seized property greatly exceeds the value of the property.
For example, if you are someone who has $1,000 in cash seized because of suspected illegal activity, it is more than likely, you will have far more than that invested in legal fees to prove your innocence and reclaim your property. This results in many folks choosing not to fight it.
In this instance, the accused is essentially considered guilty until they are able to prove their innocence. That is a problem in our criminal justice system. Earlier this week, I floor managed Senate File 446 in the Iowa House to make necessary changes to our civil asset forfeiture law in order to remedy this situation.
In summary, SF 446 does the following:
• Prohibits forfeiture of seized property valued less than $5,000, without a criminal conviction (i.e. beyond a reasonable doubt)
• For property valued above $5,000, the standard of proof required for asset forfeiture is increased from “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing”
• Requires a claimant to make a prima facie showing, which places the burden of proof on the prosecutor
• Requires a proportionality review of the property that is to be forfeited
• Requires law enforcement to document certain records related to asset forfeiture, creating more transparency in the process
As someone who is a strong advocate for our men and women in law enforcement, I want to be clear that the intent of this legislation is not to cast a negative light on our law enforcement agencies that conduct their duties with the utmost professionalism. To be clear, I look for any opportunity to provide law enforcement with the constitutional tools that are necessary to perform their duties with an emphasis on efficacy and safety.
At the same time, we must also ensure our laws are constructed in such a way that preserves and protects the constitutional rights and civil liberties of our citizens, especially with regards to due process. SF 446 is a positive step forward in striking that balance.
This legislation not only received near unanimous support in the Iowa Legislature, it also enjoyed a broad base of support from both sides of the political spectrum. I am proud to have played a role in moving it on to the governor’s desk for his consideration.
Contact Rep. Greg Heartsill