State Auditor Rebecca Otto today released the Criminal Forfeitures Report, which provides information on the amount of cash and property seized subject to forfeiture by Minnesota law enforcement agencies where the final disposition was completed in 2011. The report lists and summarizes forfeiture incidents after final disposition to provide transparency to the public and to inform lawmakers on the nature and frequency of property seized subject to forfeiture.
This report reflects the first full reporting year of data reported after major statutory changes in forfeiture reporting which were enacted by the 2010 Legislature. The statutory changes expanded the scope of information to be reported to the Office of the State Auditor. The changes included broadening the reporting requirements to include forfeitures involving driving under the influence (DUI), game and fish violations, off-road vehicle violations, gambling, and racketeering.
Highlights from the report include:
In 2011, 292 Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported a total of 6,338 incidents of property seized subject to forfeiture. This compares to 271 agencies reporting 4,604 incidents of property seized subject to forfeiture in 2010.
Of the 6,338 forfeiture incidents reported, 4,999 involved seized cash, property that was sold, or an agreement that required monetary compensation to the agency. The total value of net proceeds from these forfeitures was $6,923,260.
The agencies with 100 or more forfeiture incidents completed in 2011 were: the Minnesota State Patrol (1,004), the Saint Paul Police Department (448), the Minneapolis Police Department (245), the Southeast Minnesota Drug Task Force (191), the Anoka-Hennepin Drug Task Force (148), the Dakota County Drug Task Force (119), and the CEE-VI Gang & Narcotics Task Force (112).
In 2011, vehicles accounted for 58 percent (42 percent in 2010) of property seized,followed by cash at 32 percent (42 percent in 2010), firearms at 8 percent (15 percent in 2010), and other property at 2 percent (1 percent in 2010).
The most common criminal activities leading to seizure, forfeiture, and final disposition of property in 2011 were controlled substance and DUI-related.
In their 2010 report “Policing for Profit”, the Institute for Justice graded Minnesota’s forfeiture laws a C, noting:
Minnesota law provides only slight protection for property owners against wrongful forfeitures, as its poor law grade of D shows. The state’s somewhat higher final grade reflects limited use of equitable sharing to date (an evasion grade of B). Although state statutes require that the government must show by clear and convincing evidence that the property is connected to drug trafficking and thus forfeitable, this burden is often easily met. This is because, in practice, few cases are tried. When they are, the owner is presumed guilty, bearing the burden of showing that he is an innocent owner. Law enforcement also receives as much as 90 percent of the value of forfeited property, thus providing a profit incentive to law enforcement to focus on civil forfeitures instead of other law enforcement duties. Nevertheless, as the numbers below indicate, Minnesota law enforcement has used forfeiture relatively modestly in recent years.
However, this changed in 2009. Then, the consequences of Minnesota’s lax forfeiture laws were on full display with a scandal involving the state’s Metro Gang Strike Force, accused of using its forfeiture power to improperly seize property. In some instances, officers have been alleged to keep the property for their own personal use.
Lee McGrath, executive director of IJ’s Minnesota Chapter, noted in a 2010 Star Tribune op-ed that:
American forfeiture law arose from the British Navigation Acts of the 17th century. The acts required any ship transporting goods to British ports to sail under the British flag. If the acts were violated, the ships or its cargo could be seized and forfeited to the crown. The British laws focused on seizing the assets because in that way violations of the law could result in punishment even when the violators could not be captured.
Modern civil forfeiture exploded during the early 1980s as governments expanded the war on drugs. No longer tied to the practical necessities of maritime law, forfeiture today is one of the most powerful weapons in the government’s crime-fighting arsenal — available even when it has apprehended suspects.
That’s the key point. Today, law enforcement apprehends suspectsand takes forfeited property. Unlike its British predecessors, it no longer uses forfeiture as a substitute for apprehension but in addition to apprehension.
There are also significant obstacles that today prevent even innocent people from trying to get their property back after it has been seized. Specifically, the legal costs are prohibitive. The forfeiture process is so daunting that property owners face the burden of paying thousands of dollars to lawyers to work through complicated forms and, in many situations, to initiate lawsuits.
This is particularly relevant when the value of the property seized is modest, as is the case in Minnesota, where more than 70 percent of forfeited assets are worth less than $1,000. With the value of seized assets being so low and the cost of litigation so high, it is an unfortunate reality that innocent property owners do not bother retrieving their assets. They just walk away without a fight.
Asset forfeiture is a serious assault on private-property rights in Minnesota. It allows police and prosecutors to take title to property without the property owner being found guilty of a crime and to have their agencies benefit from the proceeds. Just as this Legislature rightfully stopped eminent-domain abuse in 2006, it should end the abuses to property that occur daily under the state’s bad asset-forfeiture laws.
More information: IJ’s backgrounder on Minnesota forfeiture, the ACLU, and Chad Hedman’s political science senior thesis “Taking Money: The Politics of Asset Forfeiture in Minnesota“.