DES MOINES (AP) — An analysis of data from Iowa law enforcement agencies shows they seize cash, vehicles and other private property from at least 1,000 people a year without proof the property was acquired as a result of a crime or was being used to help people commit crimes.
The seizures have increased markedly since the 1980s, when state and local governments reported fewer than two dozen such cases annually. The civil forfeiture laws have let helped the agencies pump millions of dollars into their budgets, mostly in uncontested cases. In many instances no criminal charges were filed against the person whose property was seized.
Some lawmakers and social justice groups say the agency practices have strayed beyond the original intent of Iowa’s forfeiture laws.
In 1984 the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Forfeiture Act as a weapon to be used against drug traffickers. And in 1986, a change in federal law expanded civil forfeiture to include money-laundering activities and virtually any criminal or regulatory violation.
States soon adopted their own versions.
Polk County 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, the analysis shows.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said the forfeiture totals are the combined result of higher population and good law enforcement work.
“A lot of this revolves around the drug trade, 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,” Sarcone said.
A state Senate bill that would have allowed forfeitures only in cases resulting in criminal convictions failed to make it through the legislative process this year. Sen. Charles Schneider vowed to resurrect it next year.
“My main concern is that assets can be forfeited to the state without a person even being charged with a crime, and I think that runs afoul of the Constitution,” Schneider said.