One of the worst states engaging in civil asset forfeiture, better known as “policing for profit,” suffered a blow in its campaign to rob innocent people of their cash and assets. After withering criticism and a lawsuit it couldn’t win, Iowa’s “Drug Interdiction Team” was disbanded on December 6.
“The so-called “interdiction” unit’s key focus was to stop vehicles traveling along Interstate Highway 80 suspected of being involved in drugs or other crimes. It was a part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety and had become a target in recent years from critics who alleged the team used unconstitutional practices to seize private property for law enforcement profits.”
This special group of State Troopers used every trick in the book to engage in warrantless searches of people’s vehicles, after pulling them over for minor “offenses” like failure to use a turn signal. Using flimsy excuses such as a dirty car, the odor of air freshener, or fidgeting, the cops would ransack vehicles in hopes of finding any amount of suspected drugs or paraphernalia.
The cops would then make up suspicions about “criminal activity” and use Iowa’s broad civil asset forfeiture laws to seize cash, assets and vehicles of the occupants – with no charge or proof of a crime. Even if no charges are filed or the person is found innocent, he or she must prove to a court they obtained their cash or property legally, incurring attorney and court fees.
Using these devious methods, Iowa law enforcement has raked in more than $55 million in cash since 1985 and 4,200 vehicles since 1991. It’s entirely unknown how much the cops took in other valuables such as guns, jewelry, furniture and artwork, as no records are kept for those items.
The Des Moines Register began exposing Iowa’s egregious use of civil asset forfeiture after a 2013 incident. Two California gamblers were traveling through Iowa with $100,000 in cash, and were pulled over for allegedly not using a turn signal. Having a California license plate, this was a golden opportunity for the “interdiction” team.
The cops used alleged “fidgeting and nervousness” to justify their search, which found a small bit of cannabis. It didn’t matter than both the men had California medical cannabis cards. After arguing the search was illegal, $90,000 was returned to the men, who filed a federal civil lawsuit in 2014 for damages, stating “the troopers had no probable cause to detain the men for a search of their vehicle and that officers had been taught improper techniques for justifying the search.”
Iowa settled the case by awarding the men an additional $60,000, on the same day it disbanded the Drug Interdiction Team.
“The true importance of this lawsuit was that it forced the state of Iowa to re-examine its decades-long practice of pushing the constitutional boundaries of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law and to disband the Iowa Drug Interdiction Team,” said Glen Downey, attorney for the gamblers.
Four days after the announcement that the “interdiction” team was disbanded, Iowa’s policing for profit was struck another blow. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that cops wrongly detained a driver in a case that “will restrict the ability of state patrol troopers and deputies to do the type of warrantless vehicle searches…using controversial civil forfeiture laws.”
“Friday’s ruling came in the case of Robert Pardee, who’s fighting to get back $33,100 that a trooper seized after stopping a vehicle he was riding in and finding a small amount of marijuana during a search. The trooper called for a drug dog and searched the vehicle, partly because he believed the car had a “lived-in” look that could indicate cross-country drug trafficking.
But Justice Edward Mansfield in his opinion for the majority dismissed that evidence as “unremarkable” and clearly not evidence of criminal activity.
“There were water bottles, an energy drink, a metal coffee cup, chips and dip, apples and bananas, a trash bag with some trash, a sleeping bag draped on the rear seat and a guitar case,” Mansfield wrote. “Many vehicles are more lived-in than that.”
Pardee, a California resident, was acquitted of the drug charge, but even after the court ruling in his favor, he still has to convince the Poweshiek County District Court to give him his money back.
The insidious nature of civil asset forfeiture is being exposed across the country. In the last two years, 18 states have reformed their forfeiture laws, in some cases requiring a criminal conviction to seize assets. With these two cases being highlighted and the disbanding of Iowa’s “interdiction” unit, that state may be joining the list soon.
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