Advocates of a bill to prohibit police from taking a person's property until he or she is convicted of a crime made their case before a Minnesota legislative committee on Thursday, but opponents appeared to win a round when the bill's sponsor declined to bring it to a vote, saying it lacked sufficient support to pass.
"We decided to wait for another day," said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester.
Supporters said elements of her bill on forfeitures, one of the hot button issues in the Legislature this year, may be resurrected in amendments later in the session.
Last year's scandal around the defunct Metro Gang Strike Force prompted critics of the state forfeiture law to propose changes. Investigations found the Strike Force sometimes seized property and sought its forfeiture even when no one was charged with a crime.
One proposed reform would require prosecutors to go to court to seek approval for a forfeiture rather than handle it administratively.
Law enforcement officials and representatives of state prosecutors lobbied against Liebling's bill, saying the problems of the Strike Force were an aberration. They were sharply critical of her proposal to require that all forfeiture proceeds go into the state general fund and then be spent on public safety.
Current law requires 70 percent of cash and proceeds go to the police agency that seized it, 20 percent to the prosecuting agency and 10 percent to the state general fund.
Though Liebling's bill didn't advance Thursday, the House Committee on Public Safety Policy and Oversight approved a forfeiture bill introduced by Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis. Mullery has said his bill is more moderate.
It would require an officer to provide a forfeiture receipt when seizing property, require a model policy for best practices for forfeitures and would not permit forfeiture of a vehicle unless the retail value of drugs seized is more than $50. Currently the threshold is $25.
Liebling said Thursday that while she's not disparaging police, they shouldn't have a financial incentive to seize property, a view shared by Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson, who supported her bill. Other backers included the liberal American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, the Institute for Justice -- a libertarian group -- and the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Backing Mullery's bill and opposing Liebling's were John Kingrey, of the Minnesota County Attorney's Association, Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and Jim Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association.
Flaherty said the current statute is a powerful weapon against drug dealers and gangs. "We need every tool you give us," he said. "This one has probably been the most effective."
Leibling's bill would allow for law enforcement to seize cash and property for investigative purposes but would require prosecutors to make a case in court before seized property could be forfeited.
Mullery said people who want to challenge a forfeiture can currently fill out a form and take their case to small claims court. He said Minnesota law provides more legal protections on forfeitures than most states.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382