New Report Shows Minnesota’s Forfeiture Laws Stack the Deck Against Property Owners

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 31, 2013

Arlington, Va.—A newly released report from the Institute for Justice is the first to systematically examine Minnesota’s civil forfeiture practices, and it shows that law enforcement agencies netted almost $30 million from 2003 to 2010. The report also finds that forfeiture revenues grew 75 percent from 2003 to 2010.

Under Minnesota’s civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies can seize and keep cars, cash and other private property that is merely suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture, a property owner facing civil forfeiture need not be found guilty of a crime to permanently lose his or her possessions.

The problem at the core of civil forfeiture is the perverse financial incentive that encourages law enforcement to “police for profit” rather than seek the neutral administration of justice. IJ’s report, A Stacked Deck, found that state law enforcement agencies kept more than 74 percent of forfeited property. Cash was the most frequently seized and kept property, accounting for 51 percent of forfeitures, while only three percent of cash seizures were returned to the owner. The report also debunks a common perception that forfeiture yields enormous sums of cash from large drug busts. In reality, the average value of forfeited property is about $1,000.

Forfeiture reform would allow the state to be tough on crime while still respecting property rights. Minnesota should reform its forfeiture laws by following three principles: (1) Reestablish the innocent-owner defense, which was stripped from individuals as a result of a 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court decision; (2) require that a person be found guilty of a crime in criminal court before property can be forfeited in civil court; and (3) remove the profit incentive that creates a conflict of interest for prosecutors whose first responsibility is the neutral administration of justice, not to reaping profits for their own budgets.

“Civil forfeiture represents one of the biggest threats to property rights in Minnesota,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s legislative counsel. “Minnesota has been plagued with forfeiture abuse, and it’s time the legislature reformed its forfeiture laws. A Stacked Deck highlights how the perverse financial incentive and laws stacked against property owners invite abuse, and what state legislators can do to protect the property rights of all Minnesotans.”

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that fights forfeiture abuse across the country, has joined with other civil rights organizations to call on Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota and other states to reform these laws in the upcoming legislative session.