Hot Dish Politics: Auditor's report takes a closer look at forfeitures

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2013 - 7:25 PM
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Rebecca Otto

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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A new report shows that the Minnesota State Patrol far and away led the state’s law enforcement agencies in seizures of property associated with criminal offenses last year. But it’s not necessarily a financial boon for the department, a spokesman said.

According to the report issued last week by State Auditor Rebecca Otto, 310 agencies reported 6,851 seizures of property in 2012, a slight increase from the 6,338 seizures reported by 292 agencies in 2011. The State Patrol led all agencies with 948 seizures, with the St. Paul Police Department a distant second with 690. In all, the forfeitures netted $6.6 million in cash or property.

Under state law, property associated with designated criminal offenses may be forfeited and sold at auction. Of the property seized last year, 71 percent was cash or was sold. The State Patrol’s numbers likely stem from the fact that vehicles accounted for 54 percent of total seizures.

The value of the properties seized in 2012 ranged from $1 to $78,845. The average forfeiture had a valued of $1,263. The vast majority of seizures resulted from drunken-driving and drug arrests.

Changing laws

Since 1971, the Legislature has drafted nearly a dozen laws regulating forfeitures, resulting in some changes. For instance, although legislators passed a measure in 1993 banning the sale of forfeited firearms by law enforcement agencies, six years later they amended the law to allow firearms sales to federally licensed dealers. (Hennepin and Ramsey counties have retained the right to ban such sales.)

Three years ago the Legislature broadened what must be reported to the State Auditor. Additionally, seized property may not be sold to law enforcement employees or their families.

Proceeds from criminal forfeitures are divided as follows: The law enforcement agency that initiates the seizure gets 70 percent; the prosecuting agency gets 20 percent; and the remaining 10 percent goes to the state’s general fund.

For the State Patrol, the total value of seized property was nearly $3.6 million in 2012, but after auction and administrative expenses, the net proceeds were just shy of $900,000. The department received $629,635 of that.

Not much profit

“It may seem like we have a lot of forfeitures, but sometimes if you seize a vehicle that’s worth 500 bucks, by the time it goes to auction and sells for $200 — with administrative costs, it’s not necessarily a profitable situation,” said State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske. “If someone wraps their car around a tree trunk and they forfeit it, it’s not really worth anything.”

Take for instance a 2001 Buick Century seized in a drunken-driving case. The vehicle sold for $1,050 but cost $391 to process and sell. The net proceeds were $659.

Resolving liens

Just 17 percent of seized property was returned to its owners, who can petition a judge to get it back before auction. Six percent was destroyed, with the remainder forwarded to other agencies or used to resolve liens against the property.

Also worth noting: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was third in seizures last year with 441. The majority were firearms, which sold for a net of $151,179.

The full report, which details the property seized and its value, can be accessed at http://bit.ly/1ekR6U.

 

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