In recent years, state and national drug policies have focused less on criminalization and more on health-based approaches. For example, we are now seeing many law enforcement agencies in Minnesota carrying the opioid antidote naloxone in an effort to save lives amid our nationwide opioid epidemic.
While drug policies may have shifted, make no mistake: Sophisticated drug trafficking organizations are still flooding our local communities with illegal narcotics. No community in Minnesota — large or small, urban or rural — is immune.
Seizures by the state’s Violent Crimes Enforcement Teams have increased significantly from 2016 to more than 214,000 prescription pills, 625 pounds of methamphetamine, 42 pounds of heroin and 4,323 pounds of marijuana in 2017. The teams are seeing organized drug dealers creating a circular flow: Narcotics come into Minnesota while the cash goes out. The cash profits are used to produce narcotics with street value several times higher. Those narcotics then come in; that cash goes out. And the cycle continues.
Civil asset forfeiture is a powerful tool used by police and prosecutors in Minnesota and across the country to break this cycle and deprive the criminals of their ill-gotten gains through seizure of drug money.
Unfortunately, two bills are working their way through the Legislature in St. Paul that would dismantle civil asset forfeiture and, in essence, say to sophisticated drug traffickers — come do business here in Minnesota (“It’s time to fix the problems of civil forfeiture,” Opinion Exchange, March 19).
The statewide organizations that represent 87 county attorneys, 87 sheriffs, more than 300 police chiefs and more than 8,500 rank-and-file peace officers stand united in opposition to these bills. We know these proposals would dramatically and adversely impact the public safety of Minnesotans by making our state a safe haven for criminals participating in the illegal distribution of drugs and even repeat drunken drivers who take lives, destroy families and wreak havoc on our roadways.
It’s important to understand that property seized in Minnesota under forfeiture laws, such as drug money and vehicles driven in drunken-driving cases, must be connected to ongoing criminal behavior. Current law allows for a person to engage in a simple process and be heard either in conciliation or district court about why the property should not be forfeited. Current law also allows a person to talk with the prosecutor without the need to start litigation. In the name of expanding due process rights and closing loopholes, these bills dramatically shift burdens and criminal-justice resources away from protecting the community to affording expansive procedures to those involved in criminal behavior.
In the end, these bills would result in the return of illegal proceeds — or instruments of crime — to convicted criminals. The proposed changes would make forfeitures so difficult to prove and so time-consuming and costly for law enforcement, prosecutors and courts that forfeitures would diminish to near nothing. Additionally, the bills would divert all net proceeds to the state general fund. There would be no requirement to use any proceeds for community crime prevention and intervention programs that are currently having tremendously positive impacts on the lives of people addicted to drugs and victims of crime.
We are not alone in our concern and our opposition. The League of Minnesota Cities, county officials and Mothers Against Drunk Driving also oppose the bill. We ask every Minnesotan to join our collective effort. Please contact your legislators and urge them to allow police and prosecutors to keep this important crime-fighting tool.
With the opioid crisis killing more than 100 people every day, now is not the time to make it easier for criminals to sell illicit drugs, profit from their illegal activity and find haven in Minnesota to the detriment and safety of us all who call this state home.
The writers are executive directors, respectively, of the following organizations: Bill Hutton, Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association; Dave Metusalem, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association; Andy Skoogman, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association; and Bob Small, Minnesota County Attorneys Association.