The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from government search or seizure of property without due process of law. And yet the Des Moines Register found in 2016 that agencies had seized more than $55 million and more than 4,200 vehicles over the past 20 years, in some cases without ever charging the owner with a crime.

That was the case with Jean Carlos Herrera. He filed a lawsuit after a Department of Transportation officer seized the 16-year-old SUV he was driving and $45,000 in cash after a traffic stop in September 2015 in Pottawattamie County.

Herrera denied the officer permission to search the vehicle, but he did it anyway, citing inconsistencies in Herrera's and a passenger's stories about why they were traveling from New York to Los Angeles. A trained police dog detected the odor of narcotics, according to court records, but no narcotics were found.

The officers seized almost $45,000 they found in a hidden compartment, along with the SUV, a partially disassembled soft-serve ice cream machine and tools. They issued Herrera a speeding ticket but never charged him with a crime.

The Supreme Court, ruling in Herrera's case, found:

Courts must decide whether law enforcement properly and lawfully seized items before deciding a claim against the property. The government can't use the seized property as evidence in a forfeiture claim if the property was seized illegally.

Officers can't force people to answer questions about seized property as a condition for its return. That could force someone to choose between possibly incriminating himself or forfeiting the property.

Prosecutors can't avoid paying attorney fees for people trying to get their property back by strategically dropping a forfeiture case at the last minute. In some cases, the cost of legal fees to get property back could exceed the value of the property.

The Supreme Court's 6-0 ruling demolishes several of the daunting barriers people have faced in trying to reclaim property seized from them even though they were never charged with a crime.

It will be up to the Legislature, however, to eliminate the incentive for law enforcement to risk trying to grab property even though they can't make a case. Currently, law enforcement agencies get to keep the money they seize; they also keep the money from seized property sold at auction. That money should go to the state general fund or perhaps toward funding drug courts instead of staying with the agency that seized it.

Iowans might think it's fine for police to get a suspected drug dealer's car and stash, even if they can't pin a crime on the person. It's like a toll for traffickers crossing through our state. But the innocent and the not-proven-guilty have the same constitutional protections. We can't deprive rights from the probably guilty without depriving them from everyone.


The Des Moines Register