Civil Forfeiture
Private Property

Megan Ashley Olson v. One 1999 Lexus

Brief Details

Rob Johnson
Senior Attorney
Date Filed
Current Court
Minnesota Supreme Court

Ordinarily, when the government suspects someone of a crime, it must follow an elaborate set of procedures to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Only then can punishment be imposed. Using civil forfeiture, however, the government can disregard many (even most) of those procedures. The government can take property from people who are not even accused of a crime, simply because the property was allegedly used to commit an offense, and then the government can force the property owner to prove her innocence. Because civil forfeiture proceeds against property—rather than a person—governments argue the ordinary rules do not apply. Even worse, governments have discovered that they stand to reap direct financial benefits from civil forfeiture.

The problems with civil forfeiture abound. First, civil forfeiture places the burden on innocent owners to prove a negative: the absence of consent or knowledge of the suspect’s alleged crime. Second, seizures lack proper judicial oversight, in part because property owners are forced to wait months or years for their day in court (while government retains the seized property, giving rise to extraordinary pressure to settle). Third, the proceeds of civil forfeiture go to fund the very law enforcement agencies that seize and forfeit property. This creates a perfect storm of motive and opportunity, as law enforcement has both an incentive and the means to take property from innocent people. As a result, the use of civil forfeiture has risen dramatically. And, as detailed in this brief, there are endless examples of abusive and even shocking civil forfeiture cases.

Minnesota, unfortunately, is no exception.