In September 2015, Jean Carlos Herrera was driving his 16-year-old SUV from New York to Los Angeles when law enforcement in Iowa pulled him over. The police did not charge Jean Carlos with any crime. Nonetheless, they seized both his car and the $45,000 in cash they found inside.
When he was pulled over in Pottawattamie County, Jean Carlos refused to allow the police officer to search his vehicle. Despite this, the officer nonetheless examined his car, claiming there were inconsistencies between the story Herrera and his passenger told about why there were traveling across the country. According to a court record, a police dog also examined the car and detected narcotics. No drugs were found in the car.
The officer issued Jean Carlos a speeding ticket when they seized his vehicle and money. They used civil asset forfeiture procedures which means no criminal charges needed to be filed against Jean Carlos for law enforcement to keep his property. Since then, Jean Carlos has fought his way through the Iowa legal system to get his car and money back.
This year, the case had finally made its way to the Iowa Supreme Court. The court’s unanimous, 6-0 ruling will dramatically change the way civil asset forfeiture operates in Iowa.
Firstly, the supreme court found that now, the courts must decide whether law enforcement has lawfully seized items before they can determine any claim against the property. If the government took the property illegally, it may not use it as evidence in a civil asset forfeiture case.
Secondly, law enforcement may not demand property owners answer questions about any seized property as a precondition for returning it to the owner. To do so may mean the owner has to decide between forfeiting any claim on the property or self-incrimination.
Thirdly, prosecutors have in the past avoided paying attorney fees for individuals attempting to get their property back. They have done so by dropping forfeiture cases shortly before there is a ruling. This placed a heavy burden on property owners as the legal fees can exceed the value of the property. The supreme court ruled that prosecutors can no longer avoid paying these fees.
While this ruling does not reform Iowa’s civil asset forfeiture procedures, it will remove barriers to those who are trying to retrieve their property. However, since law enforcement keeps the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture seizures in Iowa, there is still an incentive for police to take property from individuals.
Data published in 2016 shows how Iowa’s law enforcement agencies have dramatically increased their use of civil asset forfeiture over the last thirty years. In 1986, the total amount of statewide civil forfeitures was $49,000. By 1996, that number had risen to over $1.2 million. In 2016, it was $4.9 million.
Merlin Bartz, a former state senator who sat on the committee that helped civil asset forfeiture reform pass in 1996 now believes the system needs reform. “I suspect this is an issue of bureaucratic creep,” he said. “Law enforcement started seeing precedence and history of how the law could be used. I think the process in 1996 was noble, but the bureaucratic creep may have taken the legislation too far.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.