Civil forfeiture lets the government take and keep cash, cars and other assets without convicting the owner of a crime, or even charging them. In theory, it is supposed to punish criminals, particularly drug dealers, by confiscating proceeds of illegal activity. But in reality, innocent people are losing their property without a meaningful requirement that prosecutors prove wrongdoing.
Consider the story of Stephany Walker, a single mother and home health care worker for a disabled child. In 2016, she let her now ex-boyfriend use her car to run an errand, but he was pulled over. Law enforcement determined the car’s license plates did not match the registration. The vehicle was impounded after a vial containing a small amount of cough syrup was found during a search.
But neither Stephany nor her ex-boyfriend was ever charged with a crime. However, months after her car was seized, Stephany was still fighting to get it back. Without her car, she was forced to take cabs to work, expenses that left her essentially homeless. And Stephany had to continue making her monthly car payments, even though her vehicle was in law enforcement’s possession.
In 2014 the Legislature recognized there was a problem, and passed a bill to rein in civil forfeiture by requiring a criminal conviction before a person’s property could be forfeited in civil court. Unfortunately, that legislation left major loopholes. In the years following this reform, the number of civil forfeitures, including those without criminal convictions, has remained largely the same.
We have introduced HF 3725/SF 3419 to close those loopholes. The bill would abolish civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture, while still allowing property used for illegal purposes to be seized for evidence. On Tuesday, at 5 p.m. the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee will hold a hearing on this comprehensive reform.
Replacing civil forfeiture with criminal forfeiture would fix the biggest problem with the current system. Currently, when property is seized, the owner enters criminal court but the property enters the civil system, where it’s much easier for the government to win. To get property back in the civil system, owners must file a lawsuit against their own property, leading to bizarre case names like Laase vs. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe (an actual Minnesota Supreme Court case).
If the owner does not file a lawsuit, the property is forfeited “administratively,” regardless of whether the owner is guilty or innocent. More than 95 percent of forfeiture cases are handled this way.
That’s an enormous loophole that largely undermines Minnesota’s current conviction requirement. In the vast majority of cases, the cost of hiring a lawyer is greater than the value of property seized, meaning innocent people often let their property go rather than fight back.
A State Auditor’s report revealed that the value of forfeited property in 2016 averaged less than $1,700. Only 6 percent of forfeiture cases involved amounts that topped $5,000.
Converting to criminal forfeiture would end Minnesota’s unjust two-track system. Under criminal forfeiture the person and property are part of the same criminal proceeding. That means owners would not have to file a separate claim in civil court to begin the forfeiture process.
Abolishing civil forfeiture has earned support from across the political spectrum. Conservative organizations including Americans for Tax Reform, Freedom Works and the Faith & Freedom Coalition have joined with the ACLU, the Institute for Justice, the Justice Action Network and others in support of this reform.
The presumption of innocence is one of the most revered principles in our justice system. It’s time to end civil forfeiture and replace it with a law that both is tough on crime and safeguards constitutional rights.
Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is a member of the Minnesota Senate. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, is a member of the Minnesota House.