June 23, 2015

Inside The Reporter’s Notebook: Reporters Explain The Register’s Forfeiture Law Abuse Investigation

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Iowa forfeiture law is reported to be one of the worst in the nation for protecting innocent people from forfeiture, The Des Moines Register reports in a series of stories this year.IowaWatchReporter_Logo_transparent

The Register began an investigation at the end of last year into Iowa forfeiture and the significant amount of money legally—but not always rightfully—seized by law enforcement authorities across the state. Iowa law enforcement agencies may seize property based only on the assumption that it is in some way connected to illegal activities, without direct proof that the victim has obtained the property illegally.

The intent of forfeiture laws across the nation is to help break down the financial base for ongoing criminal activities, but many law enforcement agencies are abusing the system by “policing for profit.”

In one article that is part of The Register investigation reporters Jason Clayworth and Grant Rodgers write about the ways in which innocent people fall victim to law enforcement authorities that seize money based on the belief that it is obtained illegally.

They highlight how difficult it is to challenge forfeiture cases in civil courts, where the owner of the property has no presumption of innocence or right to a state-appointed attorney. Often, innocent victims will not challenge law enforcement agencies because attorney costs generally exceed the value of the property that was seized.

In an interview with IowaWatch, Jason Clayworth discusses the premise behind the Iowa forfeiture investigation and how much influence he hopes it could make.

Clare McCarthy, IowaWatch: I would first like to address the reasons you had behind this investigation and why you started it. I know that the article “Iowa forfeiture: a system of legal thievery” was one of many articles written for this investigation, but what motivated you to investigate Iowa forfeiture?

Jason Clayworth, Des Moines Register

Jason Clayworth, Des Moines Register

Jason Clayworth, Des Moines Register: Well, in the past year before this story was published, there were two national stories out of Iowa that caught my attention. And one was a Spirit Lake case, where there was a woman whose family had owned a restaurant for nearly forty years. The IRS came in and accused her of staging her deposits of less than ten thousand dollars so she could avoid reporting to the IRS or the FBI what the money was from.

So there is a federal law that says if you deposit more than $10,000 you have to report where the money came from. And so they accused her of staging her deposits from her business. It was an all-cash business — they’d been in business, like I said, for almost four decades — and so she fought it. And she won. But ultimately — you know, there’s a non-profit group that helped her, and they’re now seeking something like $80,000 in attorney fees that it cost them to fight to get her $33,000 back. So that caught my attention of course.

And then the second one was a case where some state troopers pulled over some folks that were gambling that had come from Illinois and they were traveling through Iowa. And they (troopers) seized $100,000. In that case, they did find a blunt, so one marijuana cigarette, and they seized the entire amount and they believed it was related to drug trafficking. They (the gamblers) were successful in getting their money back, too, and now those folks are also seeking to get attorney fees paid.

Those two cases really brought to my attention that there might be something more going on in Iowa. What Grant Rodgers, the co-author of this, and I did is — we first figured out how we can try to assess how big of a deal this is in Iowa. And we were able to do that in some way by going through the (Iowa) county attorney association. And so that is kind of a clearinghouse. They collect for the state of Iowa…

Grant Rodgers, Des Moines Register

Grant Rodgers, Des Moines Register

The state of Iowa gets 10 percent of cash seizures.

And so we were able to see from a cash-side how much had been collected by going through the County Attorneys Association. We literally went through hundreds — I mean, we’re talking more than 600 different cases — and reviewed those. And we pinpointed the counties we were looking at by those that had collected the most in forfeitures in the past six-year period. And then from that we were able to determine how widespread this is.

And you know, the thing of it is, and what we ultimately found, is that there really isn’t a good sense — I mean, what we reported is completely under-reported. And that is because many of these counties don’t have to report all the forfeitures to the state. And that is because they don’t have to share it. So it is likely that there are millions and millions of dollars more that were not included in our report. So it is a bigger deal than what we reported, I know, and we have stated that multiple times. And the fact that there are so many that are forfeited without criminal charges is a big issue.

McCarthy: And when did you first begin this research?

Clayworth: I first became interested in this — I think my first notes were in February of 2014. But we actually earnestly began working on it in November of 2014.

McCarthy: And were law enforcement agencies easily willing to provide any information to you about the forfeited money, or was it difficult to obtain accurate information?

Clayworth: Um, we have a mixed bag. There were some counties that we easily obtained the information from and then others that gave us a little bit of a bite. Ultimately, we were able to get what we needed. But it was what I expect in any investigation. I go into it expecting that there will be—in some cases, especially when you do something this big—that there will be some pushback. And there was, but for the most part we were able to get everything that we needed.

McCarthy: How many victims of forfeiture did you interview? Were most of them glad to express their own opinions of what happened to them?

Clayworth: Yeah, that was the thing that took so long. It was agonizing getting sources to talk. So many of them — I didn’t keep close track of how many different folks we actually spoke with — but I know that we probably tried to contact a good third of those 600 people. The thing that we struggled with was that many people said that — many of these people, their records aren’t completely clean. There are people that had run-ins with the law before. And many of them expressed to us that they didn’t want to talk on the record because they feared that there would be future retaliation and they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. But we were able to talk with — I think that we actually quoted almost a dozen of them throughout the series. So we were able to get a good sampling of people on the record to talk. But that was difficult. And it’s also difficult because many of these people live out of state, and they’re more just difficult to track and to locate.

McCarthy: How did you find documents of description of property? I know you had some pictures in this article of what the officer had written down when making the forfeiture—does the county clerk office just release those to you?

Clayworth: Yeah, so when we were going through the hundreds of reports — whatever the county sees as cash, there is a state law that says it has to share 10 percent of that with the state of Iowa. So when they file that, they often times — not always — file a bit of more detail. So some of that information came from those reports. And in other cases, we obtained the information through the district court because they have to file — in order to seize — they have to file an asset forfeiture form and go through the court system. And that’s where they have to outline their justifications for seizing the money. So it really came from those two different sources.

McCarthy: Oh, okay. Right. Do you think through the writing of this investigative series that any more of these forfeiture cases have been resolved? I know that you interviewed (Michael) Sanchez-Ratliff (a forfeiture victim featured in a Register story) and others about their experiences and then some of them went forward with their investigation. Do you think more of such cases have been resolved since you have started writing this series?

CourthouseClayworth: No, I don’t. I think that there is still a deep well of confusion involving forfeitures. And I mean, those cases that you just mentioned, those are people that are trying to get some of their attorney fees back. But since these stories have published, I have heard of — I’m aware of — multiple other cases that found on their surface at least to be quite egregious and deserve further review, which I am currently doing. So I think that it’s an ongoing issue.

I think that this series — I’m happy about this part — that the series, at the very least initiated some conversation, and I think that we’re likely to see more conversation in the next legislative session. So that’s a good thing. You have Senator (Chuck) Grassley on the (U.S.) senator level, and then you have several lawmakers on the state level who are interested in looking at reforms and trying to decipher what’s fair. So that’s, in my way of thinking, that’s a successful series, that at the very minimum you get folks to engage in some fair conversation.

McCarthy: How do you think having this appear as a series benefited this particular investigation? Do you think it would have been possible with one article or is there just too much information out there?

Clayworth: Well, yeah, I think there was way too much information for just one article. I am the type of writer who likes to keep the stories concise, and I think that I am a realist in knowing that our readers oftentimes don’t care to read tons and tons of book-report-like reports. But, in this situation, I felt differently because there was so much information there — important, critical information — that I felt that in this case, multiple day series was justified. Also, I think that if we hadn’t had a series, the critical points — you know, like one day was about how the money was spent in some counties — those are really critically important facts that would have gotten buried had they been part of one story. So, I’ve not regretted doing multiple day series for this project because of that.

McCarthy: Right, uh-huh. Do you think this series has enlightened citizens of Iowa — not just state legislators but everyday citizens of Iowa about their constitutional rights preventing such thievery from happening?

Clayworth: I definitely believe so. And I do because of the feedback we have gotten from readers. This was one of our most popular — particularly in the first days that this came out — one of our most popular stories for a while. I mean we could tell from web reviews and readership that it well received. And we got a lot of comments online and also through phone and email. So the reader engagement was tremendous, and I think that it led to some education of the public about what is going on. So yeah, I think so. I’m quite pleased with that.

McCarthy: Yeah, I think so, too. I’m not even from Iowa and hadn’t heard much about the forfeiture happening so I was educated also and excited to read more about it. So I have one more question: simply how much more do you think The Register will be working on this? Do you think you guys are kind of wrapping up the investigation series or do you think you’ll do more if more comes along?

Clayworth: I am currently working on another piece, so there is going to be more. And it is not an issue that I think is going to die because it is important and critical. And so, you know, it might not be on the front pages every day but it is certainly something that The Register is going to stay on top of and watch, because as this develops, it is something that, in our view, is just immensely important.

McCarthy: Do you know of any other states that are doing deep investigations into forfeiture or is Iowa the main one?

Clayworth: I know that — let’s see, where was this — I think it was Michigan… I know that in the state of New Mexico, the governor recently signed some legislation that makes civil forfeiture illegal, so that if you don’t have a criminal charge you can’t receive a forfeiture. And there is another state, too, but off of the top of my head I am missing it. So I know that there is a lot going on, and that this is a national issue not just an Iowa one. It is a very widespread problem that is everywhere.

This IowaWatch feature fulfills an Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism vision of promoting investigative journalism in Iowa. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it with a tax-deductible donation, go to this link.

 

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