There is hope Minnesota is on the right track to decreasing the use of civil forfeiture, but recent data also shows current processes remain overly complex and too costly for many Minnesotans.
Police and prosecutors took less cash and property in 2022 than they did in 2021, building on an encouraging trend. Minnesota’s state auditor, Julie Blaha, tentatively attributed some of that success to the state reforms enacted in 2021, though she correctly observed that one year is not enough time for a reform’s effects to show up in data, especially as some forfeitures can take years to resolve. And even if some data suggest Minnesota is heading in a promising direction, the Institute for Justice (IJ) found some disturbing facts, indicating the money-making operations remain alive and troubling.
Under state law, law enforcement can seize property and prosecutors can use civil litigation to take ownership of the property. Both then can share up to 90% of the cash and proceeds from the sale of vehicles and other forfeited property. In 2022, Minnesota law enforcement reported more than $6.6 million in net proceeds from forfeiture under state law and another $1.9 million in payments from forfeitures done by the federal government.
After years of scrutiny, Minnesota lawmakers passed a set of reforms in 2021. Among other changes, the reforms codified basic constitutional protections that police should long have been following. Specifically, if police want to seize currency less than $1,500 from an individual, the money must be found in proximity to a controlled substance when there is probable cause to believe the money was exchanged for the purchase of a controlled substance.
Prior to the new law, state statutes did not define the requisite probable cause for police to seize small amounts of currency. This may help explain why, as reported in the third edition of IJ’s Policing for Profit study, the median currency forfeiture in Minnesota from 2015-2018 was just $607. In 2022, IJ’s preliminary analysis of currency forfeitures shows the amount increased to $1,242. Although a sizable increase, the amount is still too small for many Minnesotans to engage in costly litigation.
An in-depth review of Minnesota’s 2022 forfeiture data revealed the number of forfeitures declined drastically since 2018. There were 8,091 forfeitures under state law five years ago. Last year that figure dropped to 5,094. Additionally, the number of agencies that did not forfeit property went up from 138 in 2018 to 164 in 2022.
However, the data also showed statewide increases in net proceeds, average proceeds, and the median amount for currency forfeitures. Those trends could mean police are compensating for the reforms by targeting higher-value targets such as cash forfeitures.
On top of that, the data shows most Minnesotans—more than 80%—don’t contest their forfeitures. In Minnesota, like most states, the value of forfeited property is far less than the cost of a legal fight. For example, the median currency forfeiture was $1,242 last year, whereas hiring an attorney to fight a simple forfeiture costs an estimated $3,000. In other words, the cost-to-benefit ratio is too skewed for most Americans, stopping many from fighting to regain what might rightfully be theirs.
“Protecting Minnesotans’ property from wrongfully being seized and forfeited requires state legislators to move forfeiture litigation from civil courts to criminal court,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “State legislators can address the high rate of 80% that property owners don’t litigate forfeiture cases by simply changing the venue of forfeiture litigation. It will ensure that those acquitted of criminal charges can pick up their cash and keys as they walk out of court as free men and women.”
IJ is working in courtrooms, state legislatures, and on Capitol Hill to end civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture violates Americans’ civil liberties, and it allows police and prosecutors to put profits over public safety. And as IJ’s “Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue” and “Does Forfeiture Work?” reports show, it doesn’t help police solve more crimes or stop drug use, as some in law enforcement claim.
Minnesota’s reforms in 2021 are a good example of how lawmakers can take incremental steps to reform some forfeiture processes. While the Gopher State appears to be heading in the right direction, clearly there’s more work to be done.
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The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams. IJ has represented individuals who’ve had their property illegally seized by the FBI, the TSA, and countless state and local law enforcement agencies. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case. Visit https://ij.org/report-abuse/.
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