State Auditor Julie Blaha urged Minnesota lawmakers Wednesday to end drug- and crime-related asset forfeitures of less than $1,500, arguing that they penalize low-income people.
“If you are managing a public safety budget, small forfeitures are a minor and unpredictable part of your revenue stream,” Blaha said as she released her office’s 2019 asset forfeiture report. “But if you are a low-income person experiencing a forfeiture, those amounts can have a big effect on your life. Having a few hundred dollars seized can mean the difference between making rent or homelessness. Losing that old car can lead to missing work and losing your job.”
The annual report showed a dip in forfeitures last year but still enough for a 15% increase over the past five years. Law enforcement agencies around the state collected $7.5 million in net proceeds last year — nearly all of it involving vehicles or cash taken in drunken driving or drug arrests.
Blaha reiterated her support for bipartisan legislation introduced this year that would limit money subject to forfeiture at $1,500 or more “or if there is probable cause to believe that the money was exchanged for the purchase of a controlled substance.” The bill has not received a full House vote and no companion legislation exists in the state Senate.
State Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, co-authored the House bill and said the auditor’s report confirms the need for reform.
“Whether $1,500, $2,500, or a higher threshold, the fact remains it is immoral for government to confiscate private property before a person has been found guilty, unless the property is being held as evidence in the commission of a crime,” Lucero said, adding that he expects to get a bill to the governor’s desk next session.
Blaha’s office calculated that the average sub-$1,500 forfeiture amounted to $473. The total net value of forfeitures of less than $1,500 in Minnesota last year was about $1.5 million.
“On a system level, a change that size is manageable,” Blaha said. “On an individual level, those changes could make a big impact.”
Driving under the influence and controlled-substance related cases continue to account for nearly all of the state’s reported forfeitures. More than half of last year’s forfeitures involved seized cash or property that was later sold or subject to an agreement that required monetary compensation to a government agency.
The Minnesota State Patrol completed 1,383 forfeitures last year, the most of any law enforcement agency in the state. The next highest total came from the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force, with 211, followed by the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, which had 190.
Vehicles accounted for 65% of the value of property forfeited. Cash forfeitures accounted for 25% of the total; firearms accounted for 9%.
Another $1.9 million was forfeited to the U.S. Department of Justice in Minnesota last year. In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, the U.S. Treasury Department took in $2.7 million in Minnesota.