Attorney General Eric Holder has restricted a controversial forfeiture program that creates an incentive for police to seize property, whether they can prove a crime or not, the Washington Post is reporting. It's called "equitable sharing," and civil liberties advocates say it has resulted in traffic stops that look more like highway robbery than public safety.
The move comes after bipartisan efforts in Congress to place limits on civil forfeiture, the practice of confiscating assets without a criminal charge. Minnesota outlawed the practice by state and local law enforcement last year, but with equitable sharing, it was still possible for Minnesota law enforcement agencies to gain the proceeds from seizures by having the federal government "adopt" the cases. Since 2001, six Minnesota law enforcement agencies earned from $342,000 to $897,000 from the program, data analyzed by the Post shows.
"The new policy means that federal agency adoption of assets seized by state or local law enforcement under state law for federal forfeiture is prohibited, except for that property that directly implicates public safety concerns, specifically firearms, ammunition, explosives, and property associated with child pornography," said Ben Petok, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Andy Luger.
The Legislature's repealing of civil forfeiture in Minnesota created a delicate task for Luger, who told me he subjects these cases to extraordinary scrutiny. "Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool," Petok said Friday.
The Legislature went home after pruning more than 1,000 laws that Gov. Mark Dayton identified as useless and obsolete. On Tuesday, the governor and his aides touted this achievement, which sounds like a big number, but still doesn't compare with the more than 46,000 laws passed since the 1849 Territorial Legislature (that number culled from this page, set up by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library). That number must be multiplied by an unknown figure to capture each provision, and that doesn't take into account the rules enacted by the agencies that need more specific instructions to carry out those laws.
Looking over the full list of Unsession casualties, a few caught my eye beyond the ones I have highlighted before, such as eliminating the state's power to immediately arrest violators of weights and measures laws and ending criminal penalties for railroads that hire illiterate engineers. The bid to end elevator operator certification appears to have failed. Aside from the outdated laws, I noticed the list included one that's barely six years old that eliminates the authority of government to put up signs marking "Star Lakes" and "Star Rivers."
The "Star" waterway program was created to recognize the work of local associations to care for water quality, said Dale Gustafson, who's on the Star Lakes and Rivers Board and owns property on Sugar Lake near Annandale. "It's all about people taking care of the body of water they live on," Gustafson said.
Gustafson regrets that it somehow got politicized. In a 2009 bill that distributed tens of millions of Legacy dollars, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed only one part - the $200,000 earmarked for the Star Lake Board. Dayton noted that the board has been "inactive" since 2010. Gustafson said he hopes the organization can continue without state support, since he doesn't consider it useless or obsolete.
Here's the full list of Unsession-killed laws: