It’s been five years since the Metro Gang Strike Force ignominiously imploded, but lawmakers are sorely mistaken if they believe public trust in the state’s public safety officers has fully recovered from the force’s scandalous abuses.
Although no charges were filed against the officers, what they did still rankles. They trampled arrogantly over citizens’ constitutional rights while they policed for profit. They took advantage of the state’s loose forfeiture laws to seize and keep suspected perpetrators’ property — cars, cash, TVs, guns — even if those suspects were never convicted or even charged with a crime.
That’s why it’s an outrage that legislators are dragging their feet on one of the big, common-sense changes needed: making a criminal conviction a prerequisite to property loss through civil forfeiture. Cops shouldn’t be allowed to keep and sell your stuff to bolster their budgets unless you’re guilty of a crime.
It’s one of those public policy issues that falls into the “What, we don’t do this already?” category. The answer is yes and no.
State law treats crimes differently when it comes to requiring a conviction for forfeiture. For prostitution, drunken driving and some other offenses, a conviction is necessary to show that “the crime occurred for the purposes of forfeiture in the civil case,’’ according to an analysis by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian and civil liberties public-interest law firm.
But an exception is made for drug cases and drive-by shootings. Then, “the burden is on the property owner to prove in civil court that seized property … is not associated with controlled substance. Nothing that happens in criminal court matters.”
In a sense, property seized is presumed guilty unless its owner can prove in court that it is innocent, and that turns a bedrock premise of the justice system on its head. Because many people are intimidated by the court system or can’t afford an attorney, many don’t even try to get their property back.
“Forfeiture revenues grew 75 percent from 2003 to 2010,’’ according to an institute analysis, with law enforcement netting almost $30 million during those years. In 2012, law enforcement’s net proceeds topped $6.6 million, according to state statistics. Drug-related forfeitures accounted for 47 percent of reported incidents.
The low average net proceeds generated by each incident — $1,263 — belies one of the common law enforcement arguments against forfeiture reform, that no change is needed because this is a tool wielded against crime kingpins. While forfeiture is indeed a useful tool for police and prosecutors, the reality is that it’s also become a cash cow for some agencies, which no doubt also influences law enforcement’s general lack of enthusiasm for change.
A bill that would standardize the burden of proof for forfeiture — by extending the conviction requirement — hasn’t made acceptable progress at the Capitol despite broad bipartisan support. Another bill that would provide protections to a property’s so-called “innocent owners” — a couple with joint ownership in a car forfeited in criminal activity by one of them, for example — also hasn’t moved with satisfactory speed.
The tie-up appears to be in the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee chaired by DFL Rep. Debra Hilstrom, who is also an Anoka County prosecutor and a candidate for secretary of state. Ten members of her committee are co-authors on the House’s conviction prerequisite bill. Yet no committee hearing has been scheduled on the legislation, a critical step to get it to a floor vote and get the Senate — where reforms made admirable progress last year — to swing into action.
Hilstrom said Friday that she wanted the bill’s high-profile proponents and opponents — among them, the Institute for Justice and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association — to first find common ground on defining “conviction.” For some crimes, there may be gray areas where defendants admit guilt without a conviction.
But that could be hammered out in a hearing, and committee involvement at this point would be productive given the current tension between the bill’s opponents and proponents. The Institute’s Lee McGrath said Friday that his group already has compromised on how the legislation defines conviction.
Further compromise shouldn’t be a precondition for a committee hearing. Hilstrom said that it isn’t, but she offered no specific date on when one might occur. To her credit, Hilstrom said it’s a priority of hers to “fix the issue.” Leadership on it should be rewarded as she aims for higher office. But she should be held accountable if she impedes, rather than speeds, progress.