Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Civil Forfeiture: Iowa Classics

On June 13, 2012, two men were stopped on an interstate highway when they drove by a trooper without waving hello.  The trooper, in court documents, said the driver, and his passenger, were acting “suspicious.” One man wouldn't look at him, and the other was covering his face (itching his scalp or something), as they drove by the trooper east of Grinnell, Iowa (download the court document).

For the trooper, California-plated vehicles always raised red flags. Part of a criminal drug-interdiction program, he was charged with stopping drug traffickers coming through IowaCalifornia, along with Oregon, Colorado and a few other states, is considered a “drug source state.”   

Catching up with the car, he pulled alongside it.  The driver looked at him, the trooper said, but quickly turned his attention back to the road.  Weird, watching the road while driving on an interstate highway; but to be fair, something was up. 

The trooper noticed the driver was tailgating a semi.  The California car also had a non-working taillight; he pulled the driver over. Robert Pardee, a passenger, was caught with a small amount of marijuana for personal use.  The trooper also found cash. 

The passenger was subsequently charged, according to court documents, with possession of marijuana, a serious misdemeanor. Pardee also moved to suppress the evidence seized from the search of the vehicle (most notably a ledger of cash transactions).  Pardee claimed violations of the Iowa and United States Constitutions.  Acquitted of the misdemeanor charge, Pardee lost the court case trying get his money back—the source of this information.  The state gets to keep $33,100.

All fifty states and the District of Columbia now have some type of civil and/or criminal forfeiture statute in effect.  The first statute authorizing civil forfeiture, a criminal justice website said, was enacted by Congress in 1789 as a sanction for the use of ships in customs violation: "In 1978, Congress expanded the law to permit forfeiture of all money used in, or acquired from, the illegal drug trade and authorized the forfeiture of real property in 1984."

As a result, according to the website, criminals are deprived of their working capital and their profits, thereby preventing them from operating.

A secondary benefit of forfeiture laws is that any property seized (or the proceeds of its sale), can be turned over to law enforcement and "…used to fight against crime.  While the purpose of forfeiture and the evaluation of a forfeiture law or program should never be based solely on the generation of revenue, it is only fitting that forfeited property be used to combat those who seek to profit from crime.”

Unfortunately, civil forfeiture has morphed in to something else.

Sarah Stillman, in an exceptional piece of reporting for The New Yorker, has revealed a law out of control.  According to Stillman, in an interview on the PBS NewsHour, some of the small towns she looked at in Texas funded almost the entirety of their police operations using civil forfeiture money, “everything from money they were using to buy guns, to…a lot of the things that you’re seeing in these massive SWAT raids, all of that was coming from forfeiture funds.”  

It is not an exaggeration to say her article, “Taken,” published in the August 12 & 19, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, changed the debate.  It was certainly read and shared in the Justice Department, and influenced the action in changing the federal rules on civil forfeiture.  (Her first PBS NewsHour interview on this subject aired Aug 19, 2013.)

Action on this issue is coming to a state near you, but it is too late for the former owner of Mrs. Lady’s Mexican Restaurant in Arnolds Park, Iowa. Daniel P. Finney, reporting for the Des Moines Register, said Carole Hinders (the restaurant owner) "was having breakfast with her grandchildren in May 2013 "when two Internal Revenue Service agents knocked on the door of her Spirit Lake home."

In the article published November 2, 2914, Finney said the agents told Hinders they had seized her checking account and the $32,820.56 in it.  According to Finney, they accused her of structuring her deposits to be less than $10,000 to avoid filing required government reports — a scheme used by drug dealers, terrorists and other criminals to move money without detection.

"Hinders explained she owned a Mexican restaurant in Arnolds Park called Mrs. Lady's," Finney said.  "The business was cash or check only, no credit or debit cards.  But the IRS seized her money anyway."

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) is why.

Hinders story was picked up by The New York Times recently, and she is still trying to get her money back.

Her restaurant occupied the southeast corner on a four-way intersection in downtown Arnolds Park, Iowa.  Across from the restaurant is a church, a school and, due west, an old gas station that currently houses an office.

(Photo: Google Maps.)

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"In general,” Stillman said, “you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement….  Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one.  Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.”

This is still happening.  The YouTube video shared here outlines how fighting crime morphed into stealing.  Readers can also visit the Institute for Justice webpage, Policing for Profit," which explores the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in more detail.