Five years after Gang Strike Force scandal, more civil forfeiture reform

REUTERS/Jeff Topping
A Beretta 9mm semi-automatic pistol and other guns confiscated in crimes stored at the Phoenix, Arizona, office of the ATF.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton Tuesday signed a bill simplifying the process that allows drug suspects to retrieve cash and other assets law enforcement seized, if those individuals are not convicted or do not admit guilt in a crime.

It’s the latest reform to the state’s civil asset forfeiture process, since the 2009 Metro Gang Strike Force scandal. The 2012 Legislature voted to expand everything from government reporting and notification requirements to court access for individuals.

The newest changes — passed 55-5 in the Senate and the House unanimously — would shift the burden of proof from suspects to the government. Also, those found not guilty could get possessions through small-claims court, rather than filing suit.

Following through with a suit costs an average of $1,200, Senate sponsor Dave Thompson says. 

“For people who are middle class or lower-middle class, that is their vehicle and that’s their only means of transportation to and from work,” said Thompson, a Lakeville Republican and gubernatorial candidate. “It’s not thousands of dollars like more complicated legal proceedings can be, but it still can be enough to keep some people from getting their property back, even though they were never charged with a crime.”

He added, “For me this is a freedom and liberty issue.”

Less crime, more forfeiture

The push for the changes dates back five years, when the multijurisdictional Metro Gang Strike Force was shut down after it misplaced evidence and repeatedly seized cash, televisions and other items from those never charged with a crime.

The issue has grown beyond the “policing for profit” scandal, uniting urban liberal Democrats and libertarians who feel the issue is not about targeting law enforcement but cutting down the state’s complex judicial requirements.

An Institute for Justice report showed civil forfeit proceeds climbed 75 percent between 2003 and 2010, despite a drop in crime. But even after the Strike Force scandal broke, civil forfeiture cases grew to 6,851 cases in 2012, up roughly 8 percent or 500 cases from 2011. Overall, 2012 saw $6.7 million worth of seizures, according to the state auditor’s office.

Sen. Dave Thompson
Sen. Dave Thompson

Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, civil cases only require that law enforcement allege a criminal connection. To get property back, citizens first have to file a lawsuit, then prove their innocence. Fewer than 3 percent actually file such a suit, says Lee McGrath, executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota chapter.

Says McGrath, “The way I look at it, the scandal from the Metro Gang Strike Force raised awareness at the state Legislature about civil forfeiture. No one acquitted of a crime in criminal court should ever lose their property through forfeiture in civil court. This legislation makes consistent in Minnesota forfeiture law that a person and their property are innocent until proven guilty.”

Reforms and compromises

Reform has been slow going, with successes hinging on compromises with prosecutors and law enforcement.

The Minnesota County Attorneys Association received a provision allowing prosecutors to pursue civil forfeiture beyond just a guilty conviction. They can use an admission of guilt if, say, someone works with police as part of a deal and have not yet been formally convicted.

Supporters also dropped a provision directing any forfeiture money to the state’s general fund instead of law enforcement coffers. GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a retired county sheriff, notes that most police agencies don’t take in extra money from civil asset forfeiture.

House author Susan Allen said the original bill was “very, very broad. It completely turned [the process] upside down. People were opposed, and it went too far. The current bill doesn’t upset the current process, it just provides more due process. It’s a modest reform.”

For DFLer Allen, the bill is about repairing relationships between law enforcement and her south Minneapolis community. “We have racial profiling, and relations are strained,” she said. “I thought this would be a way to improve that relationship so that people felt like there was due process, and that it was fair.” 

The next battle

Civil asset forfeiture reforms aren’t easy to come by in state legislatures. In March a forfeiture reform bill in Georgia — whose laws are considered the nation’s least fair — was blocked for the second time because of law enforcement opposition. Late last year, lawmakers in Utah rolled back some reforms to their asset-forfeiture laws.

Another Minnesota forfeiture reform — known as the “Innocent Owner Forfeiture Bill” — stumbled at the finish line this year.

Rep. Susan Allen
Rep. Susan Allen

Under current state law, if a someone commits a crime that involves a vehicle, including violating DWI conditions, that vehicle could be seized even if a spouse owns it. The bill aims to give innocent spouses more claims to their property in court.

However, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in a 2009 case — David Lee Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe — that the “innocent owners” defense doesn’t apply in joint-ownership cases with forfeiture. County attorneys opposed the “innocent owner” bill, arguing the spouse who committed the crime could still have access to the vehicle. 

McGrath said joint ownership cases mostly impact women, and the Institute for Justice plans to pursue that change again next year.

“Innocent owner claimants, most of whom are wives, faced locked courthouse doors. They could not even raise a claim that they didn’t know or had nothing to do with the crime that their spouses who were joint owners of the property were involved in,” he said. “Looking forward we thing there is an opportunity for the Legislature to give innocent joint owners their day in court.” 

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