EDITORIAL: The wrong victims

Sometimes, the highway robber picks the wrong victim.

Such is the case in Iowa, where state troopers looking to loot valuables from motorists met their match in a pair of California gamblers traveling through the state. The result this week was another embarrassment for supporters of the insidious practice known as civil asset forfeiture.

Back in April 2013, the Des Moines Register reports, Bart Davis and John Newmerzhycky were motoring on Interstate 80 through Iowa. Two state troopers pulled them over for failing to signal and proceeded to search the vehicle on the grounds that one of the men was nervous and fidgeting, the paper explained.

The troopers found a small amount of marijuana and $100,020. They took the cash.

While one of the two men later pleaded guilty to a drug-related misdemeanor, prosecutors filed no other charges. Nevertheless, they moved forward to keep the money under the state’s civil forfeiture laws. Such statutes allow law enforcement to seize property from people on the mere suspicion of a crime. Innocent owners seeking to contest such an action face an expensive and cumbersome process.

But Mr. Davis and Mr. Newmerzhycky weren’t your typical patsies.

When the men challenged the forfeiture on constitutional grounds, the Poweshiek County Attorney’s Office — tipping its hand about the validity of the traffic stop — agreed to return $90,000, with the rest to be split among the law enforcement agencies involved. But the men fought on, filing a civil suit in 2014 seeking damages and attorney fees.

On Monday, the state agreed to a $60,000 settlement on top of the $90,000 that was already returned. Iowa officials caved in “light of the complexity of the case and the potential exposure to the state,” an assistant attorney general told the Register.

In addition, officials announced this week that they had disbanded the “state forfeiture team,” which essentially trolled Iowa’s primary interstate looking for potential marks from which they could seize cash and other goodies.

This latest example of forfeiture abuse offers yet another reminder that the practice is an affront to the cherished concepts of property rights and due process. States across the nation — including Nevada — need to revamp their laws to ensure that no American has his valuables forfeited without first being convicted of wrongdoing.

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