Ladies and gentlemen, introducing, what might possibly be the most unfair law in The United States of aAmerica!!!!
He was tired of working minimum-wage temp jobs in his hometown of Chicago, so Michael Sanchez-Ratliff took his grandfather's advice and embarked on a cross-country trip last March that he hoped would be life changing, and it was. But not in a way that he ever imagined.
The plan: Hitch a ride with a family friend to California, visit relatives and check out community colleges there.
Ratliff, then 20, did something that in hindsight wasn't the best idea, but isn't illegal. He took his entire life savings with him, which included about $14,000 generously provided by his grandmother and an additional $5,000 he saved from working.
The much-anticipated trip took an unexpected turn about eight hours later, when those ominous blue and red flashing lights which signal danger and doom to many of us, appeared in his rear-view mirror. A Pottawattamie County sheriff's deputy stopped the vehicle for traveling just 5 miles per hour over the speed limit.
An hour later, the deputy stoled all of Ratliff's cash. Despite the fact that he has a clean criminal record and a search turned up no sign of -drugs or other illegal activity, for some strange reason, the deputy concluded that the money must somehow be linked to a crime.
But unfortunately Sanchez-Ratliff is not the only one who has been robbed by police.
A Des Moines Register investigation into the use of state and federal civil forfeiture laws in Iowa reveals that thousands of people have surrendered their cash or property since 2009. The system is stacked against property owners while raising millions of dollars annually for law enforcement agencies across the state, something critics contend encourages policing for profit over promoting public safety.
The bulk of forfeitures reviewed by the Register resulted from traffic stops, often for minor violations and involving vehicles with out-of-state plates. Sort of an unofficial fee that out of state travels are once to pay when stopped by police. But cash or property was also seized after police were called or sent to homes or businesses. In a few cases, police seized cash carried by johns caught up in prostitution stings. But of course most Johns have not come forward and filed formal complaints because, well, they're johns.
Among the Register's findings:
Law enforcement agencies in all but seven of Iowa's 99 counties have used the state's civil forfeiture law since 2009. They have seized cash or other property 5,265 times. At least 542 more cases have used federal forfeiture laws.
Many of those property owners including Sanchez-Ratliff are sent on their way after surrendering their cash or other property. A sampling of about 600 forfeiture cases from the Iowa counties that seized the most property over the past six years revealed dozens of instances with absolutely no record of an arrest or criminal charges. Iowa police departments and other law enforcement agencies have seized nearly $43 million over the past six years, money divided among agencies involved in each forfeiture case. Under law, the money is supposed to be used to "enhance" their crime-fighting capabilities. But it does nothing more than promote legal thievery.
Most of the money is allegedly used to buy equipment, train officers and fund multiagency task forces. But it also has been spent on tropical fish, scented candles, mulch, dozens of boxes of Krispy Creme donuts, and other items that appear to have little or no direct link to law enforcement activities.
Local law enforcement agencies generally keep 90 percent of forfeited cash, split among the agencies that seized the property. The rest goes to the state, for use by the Iowa Attorney General's office and the state's public safety departments.
The Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit public interest law firm that has studied the civil forfeiture system, has rated Iowa's law one of the worst in the nation for protecting innocent people from government forfeiture.
For Sanchez-Ratliff, the traffic stop outside of Council Bluffs set off a chain of events that wrecked his finances and sidetracked his plans for more than a year.
He ultimately lost his Chicago apartment and had to move in with relatives. The eviction damaged his credit, making it impossible for him to obtain a car loan at a reasonable rate. Perhaps the worst part: His financial crisis forced him to put on hold plans to continue his education.
"The entire year after that was just a big struggle and hassle," he recalled during a February interview.
Despite the setbacks, Sanchez-Ratliff's experience with Iowa's civil forfeiture system ended better than most people's. He did something few others do: He fought back.
Most property owners even those never arrested or accused of a crime — choose not to challenge the forfeiture in court because they fear costly, prolonged legal battles. Under Iowa's laws, forfeitures are handled in civil courts, where the owner has no presumption of innocence or right to a state-appointed attorney. It is up to the owner to prove the property should not have been seized, rather than requiring the prosecutor to prove seizure was justified.
The purpose of law enforcement is supposed to protect the people and enforce the law. But it seems as if law enforcement officers now represent a new breed of criminal. Uniformed soldiers who have been given the liberty to take away ours.