Dayton approves civil forfeiture reform


Minnesota’s civil forfeiture laws, which empower police to seize assets they believe to be connected to criminal activity, have long been a source of contention. Not only do they enable the seizure of property regardless of a case’s outcome in court, and regardless of whether or not the property is owned jointly by another innocent party; they also arguably produce an incentive for officers to make multiple low-level arrests since law enforcement agencies get to keep approximately 70% of the proceeds derived from asset seizure.

As one of a number of recommendations geared toward minimizing the collateral costs associated with an arrest for marijuana possession, Minnesota 2020 joined organizations like the Institute for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, the Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and the Second Chance Coalition in calling for the reform of Minnesota’s civil forfeiture laws.

These calls have been heard. On May 6th, Governor Dayton signed into law a civil forfeiture reform bill that requires a criminal conviction in order for law enforcement agencies to keep any assets seized through civil forfeiture. The bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support, despite the opposition of law enforcement.

According to Ben Feist, the ACLU of Minnesota’s Legislative Director, the law brings needed change to a civil forfeiture process that was “contrary to the presumption of innocence and turned due process on its head.” Under the new law, says Feist, “no one acquitted of a crime will lose their property through civil forfeiture.” Moreover, the law switches the burden of proof to the State, because “the government [must] prove that the property (typically cash and/or a vehicle) was an instrument or proceed of the crime.”

In devising the final bill, its proponents made a compromise with Minnesota County Attorneys Association (MCAA) to allow civil forfeiture with the equivalent of a conviction in drug-related cases. Equivalents to conviction include an admission of guilt on behalf of the property owner, receiving a diversion or stay of a criminal sentence, or making a plea bargain that involves serving as an informant. Supporters also compromised on a provision that would have directed the proceeds from civil forfeiture toward the state’s general fund instead of law enforcement agencies.

While Feist acknowledges “the new conviction requirement is an important reform,” he notes that the ACLU plans to continue its work on civil asset forfeiture in the 2015 session. This includes pursuing a bill that would empower innocent owners to make claims on property when someone else’s activities result in its seizure. A bill to that effect was unsuccessful during this legislative session.

It will be instructive to see if changes to the law (which take effect on August 1st) result in fewer arrests, given allegations that civil forfeiture encourages policing for profit.