Iowa Forfeiture Law “Reform” Bill

seized property civil forfeiture

Today the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee introduced Senate File 446 (SF 446). This legislation proposes a few meaningful revisions to Iowa’s civil forfeiture laws.  The 5 changes coming to Iowa Code Chapter 809A if SF 446 passes:

  • SF 446 requires a criminal conviction before the State seeks forfeiture of property valued at less than $15,000.00
  • SF 446 generally prohibits the transfer of property to the federal government valued at less than $100,000.00
  • SF 446 codifies the constitutional proportionality test prohibiting forfeiture of assets grossly disproportionate in value to the penalties for the alleged criminal conduct.
  •  SF 446 requires seizing agencies to keep records on seized and forfeited property.
  • SF 446’s most substantial change raises the State’s burden of proof from “a preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence”.

Raising the burden of proof is a substantial improvement to Chapter 809A. The hierarchy of trial burdens from most to least rigorous is:

  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
  • Clear and Convincing Evidence
  • Preponderance of the Evidence

A preponderance of the evidence simply means more likely than not. Clear and convincing evidence means substantially more likely than not.  Words may not adequately convey the difference. However, substantially more likely than not is a more difficult burden to meet than just more likely than not. That change alone makes SF 446 worth supporting.


Nick lobbied the senate judiciary committee for additional changes to Iowa’s forfeiture laws including:

  • Attorney’s fees for prevailing claimants; and
  • Creating a pre-claim/answer motion to suppress.

Though these changes did not make it into SF 446, we will continue to lobby for them in future legislative sessions.

The full text of SF 446 is below

Iowa Civil Asset Forfeiture

iowa forfeiture lawyers

Iowa’s Civil Asset Forfeiture laws are in a word: arcane. Iowa Code Chapter 809A is confusing, poorly written and the subject of much debate. For that reason and others, if the police take your cash, car, property or house it can be very difficult to get back.

Usually, the State alleges you are involved with criminal activity after it seizes your property. Then, to keep your property, the State has to prove it is derived from criminal activity or used (or intended to be used) to facilitate criminal activity. The burden of proof, unlike in a criminal case, is only a “preponderance of the evidence,” not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Funny thing – the State does not forfeit everyone’s property. Nor does the State forfeit everything it seizes. The State often only forfeits items that are 1) contraband, 2) it can use like a car or cash, or 3) that it can make money by selling – cars and houses. If it is not valuable, the State does not want it.

We are successful forfeiture lawyers and have been for many years. It took a great deal of time to learn the forfeiture ropes. Nick now teaches legal education seminars on Iowa’s forfeiture laws and forfeiture defense. If you need to get your property back choose a legal team that has tons of experience in forfeiture defense. Stowers & Sarcone, PLC. 515.244.7446

Let us know what you think about Iowa’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws!

Who trains law enforcement in conducting criminal interdiction traffic stops?

Nowadays, every professional has to keep his or her skills up-to-date and to continue education throughout a career. Law enforcement is not an exception. Many companies offer services in the sphere of the law enforcement training. Officers can attend seminars on street crimes, defensive tactics, criminal intelligence, active shooter training and many other programs.

Police officers receive training in how to conduct drug interdiction traffic stops. A lot of companies encourage officers to get that training and claim that the drug interdiction training is important for a successful career in law enforcement. For example, the “Desert Snow” Program allegedly teaches officers how to conduct drug interdiction stops. A lot of police officers attended the Desert Snow training program and tried to copy it in some way to train other policemen. Many of the teaching of these programs are of doubtful legality and could be leading to systematic violations of the rights of persons traveling the roadways.

Every driver should anticipate that a policeman who stops a car will try to use criminal interdiction techniques on him or her. In In re Pardee, the case that I litigated and won, the Iowa Supreme Court limited what policemen can do during traffic stops. Accordingly, if you were charged with narcotics possession as a result of the routine traffic stop, you may have a defense. Even if you think that the policeman did everything right, he might have not. At Stowers and Sarcone, we know a lot about drug interdiction traffic stops. If you have any questions, please call me. I will be happy to help!

Forfeiture Attorney: Iowa’s Cash Seizure Cops Target Out-of-State Drivers

Iowa forfeiture attorney cash seizure targets out of state drivers

I’m an attorney, I handle significant forfeiture cases and I know that Iowa’s cash seizure cops do target our-of-state drivers. A few months back I posted an Editorial from the Des Moines Register, “Patrol forfeitures target out-of-state drivers“. I didn’t say much about it at the time so I wanted to revisit the editorial and discuss it for my readers.

The editorial was written days 4 days after the Iowa Supreme Court decided In the Matter of Property Seized from Pardee. Pardee, is a case that I litigated in the District Court, Iowa Court of Appeals and ultimately won in the Iowa Supreme Court. Pardee is a cash seizure/forfeiture case involving $33,100.00 in seized cash. An Iowa State Trooper claimed he initially stopped Mr. Pardee and Pardee’s friend for several minor traffic offenses. While, technically true, the Trooper really stopped Mr. Pardee because he wanted to conduct an interdiction investigation to determine whether Pardee had drugs or cash in the vehicle. The Trooper found a few joints and the $33,100.00 in cash in the car. Mr. Pardee was acquitted of all drug charges but the State still forfeited his cash. I argued repeatedly that the Trooper’s actions violated Mr. Pardee’s constitutional rights and the Iowa Supreme Court eventually sided with me. The Court ruled that the Trooper’s actions violated Mr. Pardee’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal searches and seizures.

Importantly, in Pardee, Trooper Eric Vander Weil admitted that he and other members of the Iowa State Patrol Interdiction Teams target out-of-state drivers for these so-called “interdiction stops” – traffic stops not made for traffic enforcement but which are actually intended to result in a search of the stopped vehicle. According to the editorial, the testimony I elicited from Tooper Vander Weil directly contradicted the official line out of the Iowa State Patrol –

“I can tell you, we’re not targeting out-of-staters. We’re out there enforcing the law, and they make a traffic stop, and that’s when they find the criminal activity that’s occurring coming across the interstates.” – Sgt. Scott Bright, Iowa State Patrol.

In addition, I also secured Trooper Vander Weil’s warning and citation data (collectively “tickets”) via an Iowa open records request. The data revealed that he wrote over 90% of his tickets to out-of-state drivers.

Something is most assuredly wrong when law enforcement must blatantly lie to the public about their actions and motives. Surely, if there were nothing “suspect” in either, there would be no need for dishonesty. As an attorney who regularly fights forfeiture cases, I find the Iowa State Patrol’s actions to be incredibly disturbing and I applaud the Des Moines Register for their editorial. I am happy to have shed light on the subject and will keep fighting hard to ensure the protection of everyone’s constitutional rights, including our friends from the other 49 states.


102495940-128265358.530x298The U.S. Supreme Court handed interstate travelers a major victory in 2015. On April 21st the Court decided Rodriguez v. United States. Rodriguez holds that cops must limit their investigation during traffic stops to enforcing the traffic laws. If this seems like common sense, it should. However, there are thousands of cops nationwide who are trained to “look beyond” the routine stop for other criminal activity. In other words, they use an old-fashioned traffic stop to conduct an unrelated, suspicion-less criminal investigations. The police have a clever name for this questionable, largely unconstitutional practice: “Criminal Interdiction”. In a series of upcoming posts about criminal interdiction traffic stops I will explore:

In the Matter of Property Seized from Pardee, is an Iowa Supreme Court case I litigated and won. The case involved an interdiction traffic stop. During the stop, $33,100.00 was seized from Robert Pardee. The State forfeited the cash. On December 11, 2015, the forfeiture judgment was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. Pardee will have a significant impact on criminal interdiction in Iowa. I will rely heavily on Pardee to illustrate points throughout the upcoming posts. I have linked to the opinion here.

If you have questions or comments about criminal interdiction traffic stops do not hesitate to contact us. Stowers & Sarcone, PLC.

Can The Police Seize Your Property and Take Your Money?

Can the Cops take your money

This is the million dollar question right?  Or maybe the thousand dollar question. Can the police seize your property and take your money? Under the Fourth Amendment and Article 1 Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution the police need a warrant to seize your property, including your money. If there is probable cause to believe your money is connected to illegal activity and the police obtain a warrant, they can take your money. This includes not only your cash, but also your bank accounts.

The police can also take your money without a warrant if “exigent circumstances” are present. Exigent circumstances generally refer to emergency situations or situations where law enforcement must take immediate action to prevent the loss or destruction of evidence. Exigent circumstances are a specially carved out exception to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement. Exigent circumstances are inherent in every vehicle stop. Thus, if the police have probable cause to be believe money found in your vehicle is connected to illegal activity they can take it without a warrant. Practically speaking, if the police find a large sum of money in your car they will take it, probable cause or not.  

When the police take your money they do not automatically get to keep it. There is a legal process called civil forfeiture that the money must proceed through before the State can lay final claim to it. You can fight to get it back. At Stowers & Sarcone we have fought for and won the return of hundreds of thousands of dollars for our clients. We have successfully fought for the return of cars, computers, phones and other property too. The key is having an experienced property seizure and forfeiture lawyer. There are a host of reasons that might form the basis for the return of your money. Maybe the warrant was defective. Maybe the money is not connected to illegal activity. Maybe the stop of your vehicle was unconstitutional. Whatever the reason, we will find it. Can the police take your money? YES.  But we are here to help you fight to get it back. Don’t let the cops keep your money. Call Stowers & Sarcone now! (515) 224-7446.


The IRS, A Mexican Restaurant and A Seized Bank Account

Last week the New York Times (followed by the Des Moines Register) ran a story about Carole Hinders and her 38 year-old Mexican restaurant, Mrs. Lady’s, in Arnolds Park, Iowa.  In May of 2013 Hinders was visited by two IRS agents who had apparently been snooping on her business bank account since April of 2012.  The agents visit was simply to inform Hinders that they had seized bank account; value about $33,000.00.  The seizure occurred because between April of 2012 and February of 2013 Hinders made some 37 deposits into her account which totaled anywhere between $5,000.00 and $9,500.00.

What’s wrong with that you ask?

Under federal law, anytime a person deposits cash $10,000.00 or more in cash, they are required to fill out an accompanying Currency Transaction Report (CTR).  This report essentially permits law enforcement to track the movements of large amounts of cash in an effort to root out crime including drugs and other organized crime (since most criminal enterprises deal in cash).  It is also illegal for any person to “structure” their deposits in a way which avoids the filing of a CTR.  So if you earn $15,000.00 in cash working a job, you cannot deposit $7,000.oo today and $8,000.00 tomorrow to avoid completing the CTR.  That is called structuring.  The agents in this case apparently believed that because Hinders made so many deposits between $5,000.00 and $9,500.00 she was “structuring”.  So, they seized her bank account and instituted forfeiture proceedings in the Federal District Court  for the Northern District of Iowa, against the money.

Here is the crazy part, or not so crazy part if you are in my line of work, they haven’t even charged her with a crime.  That’s right!  You do not have to be charged with a crime for the government to seize and forfeit your bank accounts or any other property for that matter.  I have a case in Iowa state court where the government has seized my client’s house, bank accounts and vehicles and has not charged him/her with a single crime.  In the Hinders case, my understanding is there has been no allegations made that the money came from illicit sources.  The claim is that she simply deposited the money in violation of the law.  Instead of charging her with a crime, the police have simply opted to take her money instead.  There’s probably a pretty good reason for it too.  In civil forfeitures, the burden of proof, “a preponderance of the evidence”, is much lower than the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.  If the government does not think they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hinders was “structuring” when she deposited the money, they just opt to take her money civilly and hold themselves to a lower burden.

In fact, in my view this leads to much more nefarious behavior.  At some point, given the low burden, it does not matter whether a person actually committed a crime.  If the government can make a colorable claim to the money or property, it is often so costly for the owner to fight for it that they don’t.  I’m not saying that these agents thought this, but it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to make that case.  Nothing in the articles suggest the police ever interviewed Ms. Hinders or any other employee of her business nor conducted any other investigation other than monitoring her bank account.  Is this how federal criminal investigations are now carried out?  Or, is this simply how civil forfeiture cases are made?  What do you think?

Lee County Iowa Narcotics Task Force on Ebay?

I recently came across a two articles alleging the Lee County Narcotics Task Force is selling property it has seized (and presumably forfeited) on ebay.  These links are here and here. Lee County is a small county in the far south east corner of Iowa.  It is home to the City of Keokuk (not to be mistaken with Keokuk County).  I used to get speeding tickets in Lee County on Highway 27/218 “The Avenue of the Saints” driving back from college in St. Louis.  Anyway, Lee County, with a population of about 35,000 people, has it’s own dedicated narcotics task force.  It seems, at least according to the articles, that the narcotics task force is seizing private citizen’s property to sell on ebay to cover county budget shortfalls.  It doesn’t strike me as particularly odd that drug officers would be seizing and selling private property to cover budget shortfalls.  However, publicly selling these items on ebay isn’t something I’ve ever seen before.  So, like any good defense attorney, I did a little investigation.  Sure enough, the Lee County Narcotics Task Force has an ebay page. Looks like business is slow right now as they are only selling one item.  I have to say even I’m a little surprised, but only a little.  What do you think?  Leave your comments below.

Lee County Selling Its Loot on ebay
Lee County Selling Its Loot on ebay