Starting in August, police in Minnesota will no longer be able to seize property from people suspected of — but not charged with — criminal involvement.
Starting Aug. 1, new legislation goes into effect in Minnesota that will stop law enforcement from seizing a person’s property — including cash, stocks, real estate, vehicles, guns, cars and homes — if that person is only suspected of being involved with wrongdoing or crime.
Under the bipartisan supported legislation, Minnesota will soon require law enforcement to first convict an individual, or require the property owner to plead guilty to a crime or become an informant, in order for law enforcement to be able to seize that individual’s property under civil forfeiture rules.
The new law also shifts the burden of proof onto the government. Previously, those who had their property taken away under civil forfeiture practices had to prove that their property was not used in, or obtained through any illegal activity.
Though the U.S. Constitution holds that all persons are innocent until proven guilty, and it grants an individual the right to legal representation even if he or she can’t afford it, those rights are not extended to a person’s property in court. This is a problem that many have taken issue with, including Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota chapter, who advocated for this legislation.
“No one acquitted in criminal court should lose his property in civil court,” McGrath said in a press release while praising the new Minnesota law. “This change makes Minnesota’s law consistent with the great American presumption that a person and his property are innocent until proven guilty.”
Max Keller, a criminal defense lawyer and representative of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who testified in support of the legislation, agrees.
“By switching the burden of proof to the government, the new law will make it more likely that some innocent people will spend the money to get their property back. In that way, this bill is an important step toward greater protection of due process and property rights,” Keller said, as quoted in the press release issued by the Institute for Justice.
The law change has been widely applauded by many. It safely passed the Senate in a 55-5 vote and passed unanimously through the House.
However, there is one group that has openly opposed the legislation: law enforcement. This group’s only concern is an arguably selfish and financially-motivated one.
According to the State Auditor’s report on forfeiture, property owners charged with drug crimes do not file a civil lawsuit to get their property back more than 95 percent of the time, meaning police get to keep the property or sell the items to make money.
“The average seizure in Minnesota is so small that it makes little sense for even an innocent person to file a civil lawsuit to try to get back his property because of the high cost of hiring a lawyer,” Keller pointed out.
This isn’t unique to Minnesota, though. The legal costs and court fees an individual would have to pay to recover assets are often more than what the property was worth. For example, in Washington, D.C., it costs up to $2,500 to challenge a police seizure in court, even though the average property seized is only worth about $1,250.
When police officers frequently conduct forfeiture seizures, those small amounts of money add up for the departments. In 2012, Minnesota law enforcement agencies “earned” $6.6 million as a result of conducting more than 6,850 forfeiture seizures. Ninety percent of the revenue from the forfeiture-obtained assets went to supplement the budgets of law enforcement agencies.
Given that law enforcement has never been more cash-strapped than they are now, many saw forfeiture revenue as a way to keep departments operating. Unfortunately, the crime rate was dropping in Minnesota while the number and value of forfeiture property seizures were dramatically increasing. For example, from 2003 to 2010, the amount of forfeiture-obtained revenue grew by 75 percent in the state.
What has been so concerning for many not only in Minnesota, but also around the country, is that many of those who have their property seized are innocent of any wrongdoing, which has dragged down public trust in law enforcement. Members of the public in Minnesota struggled to trust police officers after it was discovered that officers in the state’s Metro Gang Strike Force had unlawfully seized items such as cars, TVs and jewelry from people who had never been charged with a crime.
The task force was dismantled in 2009 and 96 victims split an $840,000 settlement. The state also passed a law requiring police departments to report forfeiture revenue, but that hasn’t helped those suspected of drug-related crimes, which is why this latest law has been championed by many civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued in the past that Minnesota’s forfeiture laws were too broad.
Though the law has passed and should be implemented in a few months, law enforcement and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association have argued that it is bad news.
John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association told Star Tribune, “Drug dealers are smart people.”
He explained, “One of the challenges we have is we walk in the door with cocaine and $10,000 sitting on the table, with five guys saying ‘That’s not mine.’ Four of them get convicted, and the fifth guy says ‘That money was mine, I wasn’t convicted, give me the dough.’ ”
Kingrey said he is not just concerned about the money, but also about the possibility that more guns may end up on the street.
“When you see drugs, you see guns and this would make it more difficult to seize and forfeit guns,” Kingrey said.
But McGrath said arguments like the ones Kingrey made about public safety are just “a guise for law enforcement’s refusal to negotiate about reforming the forfeiture laws,” before calling the new law a “modest” step toward ending law enforcement’s ability to police for profit.