A choice between giving up constitutional rights and personal property is no choice at all, the Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | May 31, 2018

A person who claims ownership of property seized by the State should not have to choose between invoking constitutional rights or forfeiting the property, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled May 25 (In the Matter of Property Seized From Jean Carlos Herrera and Ferndando Rodgriguez).

Jean Carlos Herrera argued that seizure of the vehicle he was driving, $44,900 in cash and other items was the product of an illegal traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I Sec. 8 of the Iowa Constitution.

But the Pottawattamie District Court ruled that Herrera did not have standing to bring the constitutional claim because Iowa’s forfeiture statute mandates that persons claiming possession of seized property explain how they acquired ownership of or interest in the property. Herrera asserted that doing so would violate his rights under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, but the District Court also rejected that argument as well.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-0 decision said the District Court was wrong on both counts. Because Herrera invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege, the trial court must first rule on the Fourth Amendment search question to determine whether the property can be used as evidence in the civil forfeiture proceeding. On a separate question, the Court ruled that co-claimant Fernando Rodriquez is entitled to attorney fees for his efforts to retain possession of the seized vehicle.

The decision was written by Justice Thomas Waterman and joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield, Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Bruce Zager. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the decision.

Iowa’s forfeiture statute allows the State to seize property used or obtained in a crime. A person who claims ownership of or an interest in seized property must – under penalty of perjury – state his or her interest in the property, including “the date, the identity of the transferor, and the circumstances of the claimant’s acquisition of the interest in the property.”

Because Herrera invoked his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer those questions to avoid self-incrimination, the Court said the trial court must first rule on Herrera’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the vehicle search.

Waterman cited a 1991 Iowa Supreme Court forfeiture decision that said the State cannot use evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment in a forfeiture proceeding.

“The outcome of the motion to suppress determines what evidence the state can rely on during the forfeiture proceeding,” Waterman wrote. “If Herrera ultimately succeeds on his motion to suppress, the State will be unable to rely on the suppressed evidence in proving the probable cause required for the forfeiture.”

The Court said Herrera has standing to challenge the forfeiture because his privilege claim under the Fifth Amendment “trumps” the mandate in the forfeiture statute that he testify as to how he came to have an interest in the seized property. Otherwise, Waterman wrote, Herrera faces a “difficult choice between asserting his privilege against self-incrimination or foregoing his claim for return of the contested property.”

Finally, the Court held that Fernandez, Herrera’s co-claimant who is the registered owner of the seized vehicle, is entitled to attorney fees for his efforts to reclaim the vehicle.

The State argued that since it voluntarily withdrew its objections to Fernandez’s claim to the vehicle he was not entitled to attorney fees because he was not the “prevailing party.” The Court disagreed, noting that the litigation over recovering the vehicle took place over five months. “The State’s acquiescence to the vehicle’s return after months of contested litigation is tantamount to a voluntary dismissal that in other contexts has been held sufficient to support a fee award,” Waterman wrote.


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