Minnesota police can no longer keep property and cash seized in drug cases when there is no criminal conviction under a bill signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Previously, police or sheriffs could keep property, vehicles and cash seized in drug cases or drive-by shootings — regardless of the outcome of the criminal case. If a suspect was found not guilty, they could still lose their property in civil court unless they were able to prove it was not involved in a crime.
The new law, set to take effect Aug. 1, requires prosecutors to return the property if there is no criminal conviction associated with the seizure.
The measure, authored by Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, and Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the Institute for Justice. The bill passed the House 120-0 and the Senate 55-5, despite concerns of law enforcement groups that it could be ripe for abuse and potentially put seized firearms back on the street.
Benjamin Feist, legislative director for the ACLU of Minnesota, said it was clear that a compromise would have to be reached with law enforcement.
"The issue really came down to what would an admission of guilt include?" Feist said. An earlier draft of the bill said that either a conviction or admission of guilt in an underlying drug crime would count as a forfeitable offense. It initially wasn't clear how county attorneys could proceed in some programs designed to keep people out of jail. As a result, Feist said, "conviction" includes not only a straightforward admission of guilt, but also stay of adjudications — when a conviction is deferred and later erased — and diversion programs.
"At the end of the day we were comfortable with this compromise because the new law will make it very clear that someone who is acquitted in criminal court will not lose their property in a civil proceeding," Feist said.
Advocates say the state was ripe for reform. The laws have become a growing source of cash for law enforcement agencies and were famously abused by the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force, which paid out $840,000 in settlements to victims who had their property seized.
"No one acquitted in criminal court should lose his property in civil court," said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice. "This change makes Minnesota's law consistent with the great American presumption that a person and his property are innocent until proven guilty."