The people lawmakers should be listening to as they consider reforming the state's forfeiture laws are those whose property was allegedly targeted by rogue officers in the now-disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force: immigrants, minorities and the poor.
Instead, it's clear from the Legislature's frustrating lack of progress on meaningful forfeiture law reform that those with the most influence at the Capitol are law enforcement lobbyists, whose organizations' members have a financial interest in the status quo, since forfeiture proceeds can be used to beef up agencies' budgets.
Another concern: One organization opposing the toughest reforms, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, has three board members who have served on the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board: Dave Thomalla, Robert Jacobson and Cari Gerlicher. Why are lawmakers kowtowing to these self-serving organizations?
Law enforcement's use of forfeiture has increased dramatically in Minnesota -- that's a key reason strong reforms are needed. In 1996, there were 1,408 forfeitures reported in the state, according to the state auditor's office. In 2007, there were almost 5,000. Agencies also now make more money selling forfeited goods. In 1996, the gross proceeds reported were just more than $2 million. In 2007, that figure climbed to $4.8 million.
Keep in mind that those totals may not include the goods seized by the Strike Force, since officials often didn't bother to accurately track or report their figures. And because state law doesn't require agencies to report DUI forfeitures, the figures do not reflect the number and value of vehicles seized and sold (some repeat offenders' cars are eligible). A bill authored by state Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, would require reporting of this type of forfeiture.
But the bill doesn't go far enough. Only the changes championed by State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, and State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, do. Liebling's bill ran into a buzz saw of law enforcement lobbyists and never made it out of committee. She is now introducing key elements as amendments, something expected to happen this week. Liebling's reforms would require a conviction in order for forfeiture to occur. Currently, those who are innocent or never charged with a crime can still lose their property permanently. Her reforms would also put forfeiture proceeds into a statewide fund for law enforcement grants, breaking the financial incentive for police to seize property to benefit their individual agencies -- a practice that clearly contributed to the Strike Force meltdown.
Many of the state's big law enforcement organizations oppose these changes, saying they would take away an important crime-fighting weapon. But would they? The changes wouldn't bar them from seizing property, only from taking it away permanently if there's no conviction. And two studies -- one by University of Minnesota law Prof. Steve Simon and another done as a personal college thesis by the Minnesota State Patrol's Tom Fraser -- suggest that forfeiture of drunken drivers' vehicles often doesn't stop them from offending again. Fraser's study also raises questions about this type of forfeiture's cost-effectiveness; legislators should take a deeper look at this issue.
A year after the Gang Strike force allegations came to light, it's still hard to believe this happened in Minnesota. Along with prosecution of wrongdoers, the strongest forfeiture reforms are needed to ensure these abuses don't happen again.