There are many controversial aspects of civil forfeiture in Minnesota. In addition to padding the budgets of law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys, asset seizure may impose unfair penalties beyond sentencing for criminal behavior.
Do Minnesota Civil Forfeiture Laws Support Policing for Profit?
Advocates for civil forfeiture reform assert that the current laws in Minnesota incentivize police to initiate forfeitures and encourage prosecutors to seek charges with a forfeiture component. When law enforcement seizes personal property in a criminal investigation, state agencies share in the profits. The law enforcement agency that forfeits the property receives 70 percent of the proceeds, the office of the prosecuting attorney receives 20 percent, and the State’s general fund receives 10 percent.
Personal property is often considered evidence in alleged crimes. Law enforcement agencies are allowed under state forfeiture laws to seize cars, boats, computer equipment, cash, and other assets during criminal investigations. Proponents of Minnesota civil forfeiture laws say criminals should not be allowed to profit from their offenses. They say seizing assets used or gained during criminal activity funnels money back into the community instead of the criminals’ pockets.
Civil Forfeiture Generates Substantial Profits
Civil forfeiture generates large profits for state agencies. In Minnesota, the vast majority of personal assets are seized in drug-related crimes and repeat DWI offenses. Statewide, there are approximately 6,000 forfeitures each year, netting millions in proceeds for authorities. According to the Minnesota Post, net proceeds totaled $7.4 million in 2016. Reports show that 59 percent of items seized were vehicles such as cars, trucks, motorcycles, and ATVs; 28 percent was cash; 11 percent were guns; and 1 percent was miscellaneous personal property. In the majority of cases, forfeiture was related to drug-related crimes, but the property was also seized in crimes related to burglaries and thefts, assaults, weapons, and prostitution.
After final disposition, forfeitures are reported to the State Auditor’s Office. In 2016, many agencies who reported more than 100 forfeiture incidents were among the state’s largest agencies including:
- Minnesota State Patrol
- Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force
- Dakota County Drug Task Force
- Minneapolis Police
- St. Paul Police
- Rochester Police
Minnesota law requires forfeiture reports from the State Auditor’s Office to list details of forfeitures by Minnesota law enforcement agencies including local police departments, county sheriffs’ offices, drug task forces, and state agencies like the State Patrol and the Department of Natural Resources. They are not required to list forfeiture assets handled by federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Are Big Profits Driving Civil Forfeiture?
Although there have been some reforms in Minnesota civil forfeiture laws over the years, the laws have remained the same since 2010. Challenging a forfeiture is difficult due to complex laws. The timeline to challenge a forfeiture begins on the date of the seizure, so acting quickly is essential. Since property seized for forfeiture generates large profits for law enforcement agencies, those agencies fight hard to retain ownership of seized property.
Profits of around $8 million each year are attractive incentives for law enforcement agencies. Profits allow state, county, and city agencies to purchase new equipment and fund training programs for their departments. Many people see that as a conflict of interest. To sway that perception, Minnesota recently instigated a change that requires a conviction before law enforcement agencies can claim ownership of seized property.
Are Minnesota Civil Forfeiture Laws Unfair?
There is currently a case before the Supreme Court that questions whether civil forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In 2015, an Indiana man sold $225 worth of heroin to undercover police officers and the officers seized his car. The man pleaded guilty to selling the heroin and received one year of home detention and five years of probation. However, the state of Indiana walked away with a $42,000 Land Rover SUV. Although Indiana civil forfeiture laws allowed police officers to seize the vehicle, the value of the vehicle was four times what the law allowed as the maximum monetary penalty for the man’s crime.
This case has raised concerns among certain groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the conservative American Civil Rights Union. These groups are urging the Supreme Court to take a closer look at civil forfeiture laws. The Supreme Court is determining whether excessive fines related to civil forfeiture applies to state laws.