The State Auditor's office released its most comprehensive report yet on cash and property seized by Minnesota law enforcement agencies, the result of a 2010 law enacted by the Legislature in the wake of misconduct by the Metro Gang Strike Force.
The auditor detailed 4,600 criminal forfeitures reported by 271 law enforcement agencies in 2010, worth more than $5 million in sales and cash.
The Strike Force was shut down in the summer of 2009 when several investigations found that the group lacked internal controls to safeguard seized property and to accurately account for its financial activity. There also were credible allegations of illegal seizures, potential civil rights violations and improper handling of evidence.
Since the law took effect in August 2010, all law enforcement agencies in Minnesota must submit expanded forfeiture data every year, including lists of vehicles taken from drunken drivers, gun serial numbers and whether seized property was sold, returned to the owner, destroyed or kept for law enforcement purposes.
The auditor's report for 2010, released Wednesday, includes incidents from before and after the law kicked in, but Auditor Rebecca Otto said it already is improving transparency in the forfeiture process, and is helping to keep policymakers and the public informed on the nature and frequency of property seized and subject to forfeiture.
Of the 4,604 incidents in 2010, 3,199 were reported to the auditor's office in the five months after the law took effect. The increase can be attributed largely to the inclusion of drunken-driving forfeitures.
Gross sales of forfeited property or seized cash totaled $5,367,197, with net proceeds of $4.5 million after administrative expenses and other obligations. Vehicles and cash accounted for more than 80 percent of the seized property. Controlled substance and drunken driving-related incidents accounted for 86 percent of forfeitures.
The State Patrol reported 519 incidents, the most of any law enforcement agency. Minneapolis was next with 282.
Minneapolis had the highest net proceeds from forfeitures, at $439,000, followed by the State Patrol ($432,000) and the Dakota County Drug Task Force ($203,284).
Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol said the new law hasn't affected how the patrol handles forfeitures beyond the additional data it supplies to the auditor's office. The agency already had been issuing forfeiture notices, even before the change in the law.
"For the troopers working on the road, the changes went largely unnoticed," he said.
Under the law, 70 percent of proceeds go to the seizing agency, 20 percent to the prosecuting agency and 10 percent to the state treasury. Nearly 80 percent of the 2010 seizures involved less than $1,000.
Although 271 law enforcement agencies reported forfeitures, 176 claimed none. There were 38 agencies that didn't file reports with the auditor, but Otto said the statute doesn't give her office the authority to force compliance.
Problems with Strike Force
A series of articles by the Star Tribune exposed layers of problems within the Metro Gang Strike Force. Several officers assigned to the group were suspended or fired. Under a settlement in a class-action suit, $3 million was set aside to compensate Strike Force victims and provide training for law enforcement. More than 200 people filed claims, which are pending.
One of the most vocal critics of the Strike Force was the state American Civil Liberties Union, which supported legislation that would have required a criminal conviction before seized property or cash could be forfeited. Minnesota law currently says property seized in connection with illegal drugs may be kept by police after the owners have been notified of the seizure and given a chance to appeal the forfeiture.
To increase accountability and oversight, the Legislature implemented a 60-day time line for serving notice after seizure and required that contested claims be heard within 180 days of the demand. A limit of $50,000 was placed on forfeitures without judicial approval, and prosecutors must certify that certain procedures were met before an agency can dispose of administratively forfeited property.
The new law also requires agencies to create policies on forfeitures, and prohibits the sale of forfeited property to law enforcement officers, employees and family.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the state ACLU, said he was surprised at the number of agencies with long lists of small-dollar forfeiture incidents. He compared it to a "shakedown" by officers.
"The report just shows the same pattern of police conduct we've been seeing for a long time," he said. "The law hasn't changed anything -- we just have more detail and it's more public."
Otto said the report can be useful depending on who views it. Lawmakers might see a trend they don't like and write a bill to change it and watchdog groups have a new tool to monitor law enforcement agencies.
David Chanen 612-673-4465