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Supreme Court Addresses Iowa's Controversial Forfeiture Policy

Iowa’s Supreme Court recently made a ruling that will hinder law enforcements attempts to seize cash and property it believes is associated with a crime. The court ruled that police can’t force people to answer questions about seized property before returning it. The decision will also require courts to determine if law enforcement properly and legally seized items before granting a claim against a suspect’s property.

The new ruling ends a controversial practice used by prosecutors in which they strategically drop a forfeiture case just before a court hearing to avoid paying legal fees incurred by the people who are trying to get their property back.

In recent years, Iowa has been the focus of a national forfeiture controversy following a series of cases that brought about questions regarding the way law enforcement seizes property and uses the profits to fund police departments.

In 2016, the Des Moines Register investigated Iowa law enforcement agencies and revealed that since 1986 more than $55 million and more than 4,200 vehicle were seized under the state’s forfeiture law.

Details of the Case

The case that the court ruled on involved $45,000 in cash and a 16-year-old SUV that was seized after a traffic stop in September 2015 in Pottawattamie County. Jean Carlos Herrerra and Bryan Riccaldo argued that the traffic stop, their detention, and the search and seizure violated their Constitutional rights. The two argued that they shouldn’t have to give answers to prosecutors about how they obtained their property because it violates the Fifth Amendment Privilege against self-incrimination.

Forfeiture in Iowa

Iowa has a well-documented history of controversial forfeitures. Just last year to gamblers from California received a $60,000 settlement from the state after claiming state troopers illegally stopped their vehicle and conducted a warrantless search to seize their $100,000 poker winnings from a casino. After paying the settlement, the state returned $90,000 of the seized cash.

The profits gained from forfeiture are added to law enforcement budgets, which means that prosecutors and law enforcement have an incentive to pursue such profits. The Institute for Justice ranks Iowa among the most problematic states when it comes to forfeiture of personal property and forfeiture cases have more than tripled in the state over the past 30 years. State records show that no criminal charges were linked to many of these forfeitures.

Lawmakers in Iowa have taken note of some of the issues associated with forfeiture. Last year, a law was passed that requires a person to be convicted of a crime before the state can seize cash or property that is worth $5,000 or less.

The Supreme Court’s ruling will hopefully deter law enforcement from seizing property in cases it cannot support.

Was your property seized by law enforcement? Do you need help getting it back? Contact our Mt. Pleasant criminal defense lawyer to schedule a free consultation today.

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