Property rights in Minnesota received added protections when Governor Mark Dayton signed into law SF 874, which will require property owners to first be convicted of a drug crime before their property can be seized through forfeiture. The law goes into effect August 1.
Civil forfeiture makes it easy for police and prosecutors to seize and keep property even if the owner has never been convicted of or even charged with a crime. Under existing law, cash, cars and other property may be seized if police merely suspect it was used for a drug crime. It is then up to property owners to sue in civil court to get their property back and prove it is not linked to a drug crime.
In other words, property owners must prove a negative – that they did not do something wrong. The government needs to prove nothing.
A push for civil forfeiture reform began five years ago, after a scandal involving a Minnesota police task force that repeatedly lost evidence and seized money and other valuables from people who were never charged with a crime. Police and prosecutors have fought hard against reforms.
Few Get Property Back
More than 95 percent of the time property owners do not sue to get back their property, because the legal costs often are too high.
“No one acquitted in criminal court should lose his property in civil court,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, one of the advocates for this legislation. “This change makes Minnesota’s law consistent with the great American presumption that a person and his property are innocent until proven guilty.”
According to the State Auditor’s report on forfeiture, Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported more than 6,850 seizures of property in 2012 worth more than $6.6 million—90 percent of which went to supplement the budgets of law enforcement agencies. The average property seized was worth about $1,250.
Government Must Prove Guilt
“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,” said Max Keller, a criminal defense lawyer and representative of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who testified in support of the legislation.
“Under the new law, the government will have the burden of proof that the vehicle and cash are part of the proven crime. 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.”
SF 874 was written by Sen. Dave Thompson (R-Lakeville) and Rep. Susan Allen (DFL-Minneapolis).
Shira Rawlinson ([email protected]) is assistant director of communications at the Institute for Justice.