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Waterloo leads the way in Iowa property forfeitures

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Maria Kuiper/Iowa Watch
Iowa Watch

By Maria Kuiper/IowaWatch

Mark Hopper has lived in Waterloo all of his life, except for the time he spent in prison in Minnesota and California.

He considers his more than eight years in prison to be a blessing because he changed his outlook on life. Yet, he said he feels unfairly punished despite serving his time because the Waterloo Police Department seized $60,000 of his cash and assets in connection with some of his crimes. The seizure, he said, ultimately cost him a building.

“If you did anything, they want to take everything,” Hopper, 42, said.

Hopper lives in a city whose police department leads Iowa when it comes to seizing money on a regular basis from people they arrest in civil forfeitures.

Per capita, the Waterloo Police Department ranked second in Iowa in seizing assets at $14,365 per 1,000 residents for a total of $975,528 during a four-and-a-half year stretch of forfeitures analyzed for IowaWatch. That period covered federal fiscal 2017 though mid-May of this year.

The Clear Lake Police Department had the highest per capita rate at $15,523 per 1,000 residents in the years analyzed for IowaWatch but had one seizure that totaled to $108,000. Without this outlier, the Clear Lake Police Department took in $1,219 per capita, placing it 52nd out of the 187 seizing agencies, the analysis of public data showed.

Even after taking out three large individual cases for a total of $294,542, Waterloo police produced the highest amount per capita during the four-and-a-half years analyzed: $10,027 per 1,000 residents in the city of 67,900 people.

Civil forfeitures allow the police to seize any money or property when they believe it has been involved in a crime.

“Money is the motivation,” Hopper said.

IOWA GRADED POORLY OVERALL

Waterloo’s high rank comes in a state that received a ‘D-’ rating for its civil forfeiture laws in 2013 from the Institute of Justice, a libertarian nonprofit in Arlington, Virginia. Iowa’s grade was based on factors such as no former conviction being required, poor protections for third-party property owners and that 100% of profits go toward law enforcement, the institute says.

Forfeiture cases are down in Iowa since the state enacted a forfeiture reform bill in 2017, although the number was close in fiscal 2019 to a high mark in fiscal 2017.

Iowa’s justice department cannot keep more than 10% of the state’s seized funds for its own use. Arresting law enforcement agencies get to keep 45% of cash forfeitures that exceed $4,000 and must give another 45% to law enforcement agencies in their region, Iowa law states.

Black Hawk County is Iowa’s fourth-largest county, with a 2019 population of 131,228. Data that the 2017 forfeiture law says must be public shows that Waterloo, the county’s largest city, accounted for 92.7% of seized assets in the county, at $975,528, the analysis for IowaWatch showed. And, while state forfeitures have been decreasing, the Waterloo Police Department’s numbers have been on the rise since 2019.

Overall, the county collected $1,052,666 in forfeited money and property in fiscal 2017 through May 14, 2021. Law enforcement agencies collecting forfeitures are the police departments in Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Evansdale, Hudson, Wapello, the county sheriff’s office, University of Northern Iowa police and the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s narcotics enforcement division, Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa State Patrol.

Polk County seized the most money, overall, in Iowa during the analysis period, at $2,808,944. Polk County is home to 490,161 people, giving it a per capita forfeiture rate of $5,731. The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release new population counts for counties on July 1.

In federal fiscal 2020, Waterloo police opened 56 forfeiture cases. In fiscal 2021, the department already had opened 48 cases, as of May 14. Federal fiscal years run from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said the rise in cases could be related to the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have been stuck at home, bored. The Sheriff’s Office had seized $44,496.73 in fiscal 2017 through May 14. Cases rose in 2020.

“People were doing a lot more activity that may have been counterproductive to the public good, meaning they were more involved in illegal drug trade,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen domestic violence increase. I think it’s all related to us being in closer proximity to each other and the temptation being there for those kinds of activities to increase.”

COSTLY RESULTS

Hopper was sentenced by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa to federal prison in 2010 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He served this time in California. He said he is clean.

By the time he returned to Iowa in 2018, Black Hawk County had charged him with abandonment of his property while he was in prison and forced him to give up an east Waterloo building he had purchased with a mortgage. This cost him and his father, who helped pay for the building, $90,000 that went to the city.

Hopper filed a Black Hawk County District Court lawsuit against the city of Waterloo to get his money back. A District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit in December but Hopper filed notice that he will appeal.

Hopper is critical of how Waterloo police and city officials have handled his encounters with them.

“There’s no checks and balances, there’s no oversight with what they’re doing and nobody to challenge them,” Hopper said. “You can’t even really pay a good attorney to challenge them.”

Hopper said he thought the presence of a Black mayor, Quentin Hart, and a Black police chief, Joel Fitzgerald, would change Waterloo. He said he has not seen any change.

Fitzgerald, who has held his position since June 2020, declined comment for this story other than to write in an email: “I am sorry to hear of anyone’s alleged dissatisfaction with WPD. Please advise the man in your story to stop by my office at his convenience; I would be happy to discuss the many changes the Department made during my first few months as Waterloo PD chief.”

A secretary for Hart referred reporter’s questions to Fitzgerald. Waterloo’s forfeiture rate has been higher since Fitzgerald took command than in any of the fiscal years since 2017.

REFORM IN IOWA

Former Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law Iowa’s 2017 Forfeiture Reform Act, which made changes to forfeiture practices that produced the Institute of Justice’s D- rating. It also followed a 2015 series of Des Moines Register reports that revealed how often law enforcement agencies in Iowa confiscate property from motorists in traffic stops who do not get arrested.

The reforms included:

  • Prohibiting asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction when property is valued at less than $5,000.
  • Changing the standard of proof to require clear and convincing evidence for forfeitures.
  • Instilling a proportionality review which states property cannot be forfeited if the property’s value is not equal to the severity of the crime.
  • Requiring law enforcement agencies to keep public records of how property was acquired, how property was disposed of and how money was used.

INSIDE THE REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: REPORTERS EXPLAIN THE REGISTER’S FORFEITURE LAW ABUSE INVESTIGATION

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter in Iowa called the law in 2017 a “step in the right direction” but said more work needed to be done for Iowa’s forfeiture procedures to be fair to those losing the money.

The ACLU called for requiring a criminal conviction before asset forfeiture, no matter the property value, and profit incentives removed from law enforcement agencies that take the forfeited money.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who co-sponsored the bill that became law, said he remains concerned about the incentives asset forfeiture can bring to law enforcement agencies.

“This bill that got ultimately passed was watered down from what the original ACLU model bill would have done,” Bolkcom said. “We are trying to remove the incentive for law enforcement organizations, basically, to confiscate people’s assets for their own use.”

Bolkcom said a good chance exists that racial inequality leads to asset forfeitures.

“We have racial inequality in traffic stops right now, for things like marijuana use, right? Is it likely that that same unequal enforcement of traffic laws, finds people that have assets confiscated?” Bolkcom asked.

A 2020 ACLU study showed that a Black person in Iowa was 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white person. In Black Hawk County, a Black person was 6.7 times more likely to be arrested than a white person. The ACLU based the Iowa study on law enforcement data regarding marijuana possession arrests from 2018.

Meanwhile, a 2020 Iowa Law Review study by then-University of Iowa law student Derek Miller found that Black Hawk County had the second-largest number of Black convictions per county in the state in 2018. Polk County was first.

Although Black Hawk County was home to 10% of Iowa’s Black population going into the 2020 Census, the county had convicted 20% of all Black inmates currently in prison in 2018, Miller’s study showed.

WHERE THE MONEY GOES

The fiscal 2020 Waterloo Police Department budget is just over $17.5 million. The department received $322,622 beyond that budget from fiscal 2020 from forfeitures and seizures. The department spent $45,438.69 of that during the fiscal year. The remainder is in various banks, the department’s public information officer, Maj. Joe Leibold, said.

Public records obtained for IowaWatch show how the department spent the seized money.

  • Live bomb disposal equipment: $980.
  • K9 training kit: $1,900.
  • Non-lethal distraction devices, such as teargas canisters and other projectiles: $863.89.
  • Thermal sensor for drones: $5,000.
  • Drone equipment parts: $694.06.
  • Upgrade for polygraph software: $5,325.
  • Laptop for polygraph software: $1,151.35.
  • Leadership courses: $1,090.87
  • Recruitment campaign: $4,133.38.
  • A fuming chamber that protects crime scene evidence: $15,082.60.
  • Uniform patches: $1,587.54.
  • Radar speed display trailer: $5,200.
  • Ballistic shields: $2,430

This year, the department is redesigning its logo and, in turn, receiving new uniforms and car decals. The uniforms alone will cost the city $78,000.

MAKING THE PUBLIC AWARE

In 2018, the business news and opinion organization 24/7 Wall St. labeled the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area as the worst place for Black people to live in America, just above Minneapolis. In 2020, it dropped to number five. Mark Hopper said the Waterloo Police Department’s process of asset forfeiture would be one explanation for the ratings.

“Transparency with everything is like, non-existent. And accountability, non-existent,” Hopper said. “They just do what they want because no one is challenging them, no one is gonna fight them. Nobody’s gonna. Nobody is even shining the light into this process.”

Black Hawk County Sheriff Thompson said he’s all for letting the public know about the forfeitures.

“I like being able to beat the drum as an elected official and say, ‘Hey I didn’t ask you for tax dollars to do this, I’m using bad guys’ money to do this’,” Thompson said.

“There is a little of you know, a PR, political benefit when you’re elected to be able to do that.”

IowaWatch - The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at iowawatch.org

Original Story: Waterloo leads the way in Iowa property forfeitures

Maria Kuiper

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