Forfeiture has long been a tool law enforcement use when battling issues such as drug crimes and driving while intoxicated. An individual found guilty of dealing drugs, for example, may lose his or her home. Civil forfeiture, however, is based on the idea that the property itself committed a crime, not the owner.
Law enforcement agencies in Minnesota have specific codes by which they are required to abide when it comes to seizing property. Until recently, civil forfeiture was not limited to a criminal conviction and therefore left the door open for abuse.
Allegations of abuse
Before SF 874 was signed into law this year, people who had been acquitted in a criminal court were subject to losing their items in civil court. According to the state auditor, property that is forfeited typically is not worth much, as the average value is around $1,250. The lack of regulations, made it easy for law enforcement to abuse the property forfeiture law. Many law-abiding citizens experienced the threat of losing their homes, businesses and even small items, such as shoes and televisions.
Law enforcement agencies are entitled to keep as much as 90 percent of the proceeds of civil forfeiture. Despite small average values, the revenues are skyrocketing; the Institute for Justice reports that Minnesota law enforcement collected $30 million in 2010. Combine free reign with the right motives, and it is unsurprising that 8,500 people filed lawsuits in the state from 2007 to 2013, many of whom claimed their items were taken illegally.
For example, a man in Minnesota – a former U.S. senator – lent his SUV to a relative who was charged with DUI and drug possession while driving the vehicle. As a result, law enforcement seized the SUV, and it could take months for the former senator to get it back.
Establishing new guidelines
The new law, which will go into effect on Aug. 1, 2014, will change the landscape of civil forfeiture. Under the regulations, an individual may have to turn over property if the following apply:
- The person is found guilty of a crime
- The person becomes an informant
- The person turns in a guilty plea
The government may also seize property if it attains the equivalent to one of the above examples. The law is a milestone for property rights’ advocates and is a step in the right direction for making the legal system just. Anyone who has questions regarding this new law should contact an attorney.