Iowa Disbands a State Forfeiture Unit, Pays $60,000 to Settle Cash Seizure Case

The Iowa Department of Public Safety announced on Monday that it has disbanded its drug interdiction team, a unit roundly criticized for confiscating cash from motorists. Although local and state agencies can still pursue asset forfeiture cases, “the State Patrol no longer specifically assigns Troopers to [interdiction] duty on a full-time basis,” Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said in a statement. Instead, more troopers will be assigned to handle traffic safety and special events.

“Today’s decision is an important step to protect Iowans’ property and due process rights from forfeiture abuse, but the state must do more,” noted Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice.

According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Iowa has “some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country.” Unlike neighboring Minnesota and Nebraska, state law does not require a criminal conviction for forfeiture. Instead, property owners must bear the burden of proof, effectively turning the presumption of innocence on its head.

A recent investigation by the Des Moines Register revealed the scope and scale of forfeiture in the Hawkeye State. More than 19,000 people had their cash seized by Iowa agencies since 1985. Over the years, law enforcement has also taken more than 4,200 vehicles and 37 real estate properties and confiscated $55 million.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Charles Schneider introduced a bill that would have shifted the burden of proof onto the government for innocent-owner claims and required a criminal conviction as a prerequisite to forfeiture. But the legislation died in committee.

In a separate decision, the Department also agreed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Bart Davis and John Newmerzhycky, two poker players who had more than $100,000 in cash seized during a traffic stop by two Iowa troopers. The state previously returned $90,000 of the seized cash to the two gamblers, and on Monday agreed to pay an additional $60,000. Both of the troopers involved in that traffic stop had been assigned to the interdiction team that was just disbanded.

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