Robert Pardee's vehicle was stopped by an Iowa state trooper over a busted taillight. After a search turned up trace amounts of marijuana, Pardee was charged with possession. A criminal court eventually found him innocent of any wrongdoing. So why do the police get to keep the $30,100 they confiscated from him?
The answer is civil forfeiture, of course. Even though a criminal court acquitted Pardee, a civil court ruled—under a much lower burden of proof—that it was more likely than not he had acquired the cash through illegal means.
The Institute for Justice's Nick Sibilla wrote about the case for Forbes:
Iowa State troopers can keep more than $30,000 in cash taken during a traffic stop, even though the owner was found not guilty, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled last week.
In June 2012, Robert Pardee was riding in a car through Powesheik County, Iowa on I-80, when an Iowa State trooper pulled the driver over for a non-working taillight and tailgating. During the stop, state troopers found "a small amount of marijuana" and $33,100 in cash. Pardee was arrested and charged with possessing cannabis. In Iowa, first-time offenders can face up to six months in jail and/or $1,000 in fines.
One year later, a district court found him not guilty. As the criminal case proceeded against Pardee, the state also filed a civil forfeiture case against his seized cash. Despite his acquittal, first the district court and then the Iowa Court of Appeals ordered Pardee to forfeit his cash to the state.
The text of the court's decision includes additional details about the search of Pardee's vehicle, which was partly based on the officer's judgment that Pardee's actions were "inconsistent with the motoring public." But the search isn't really the issue: After all, Pardee was found innocent of the crime that stemmed from it.
But even though the government lost in criminal court, it won in civil court. And so a legally-innocent man's $30,000 is forfeit. Like most states, Iowa has laws on the books that allow cops to keep the money they confiscate during the course of investigations—creating perverse incentives for law enforcement to grab as much cash as possible, secure in the knowledge that it's very tough for citizens to win back their property.
More from Reason on asset forfeiture here.