St. Paul, Minn.—Today, property rights in Minnesota received added protections when Governor Mark Dayton signed SF 874 into law. The new law, which goes into effect on August 1, 2014, will require property owners to first be convicted of a drug crime before their property can be lost through forfeiture.
Civil forfeiture makes it easier for police and prosecutors to seize and keep property even if the owner has never been convicted or charged with a crime. Under existing law, cash, cars and other property can be seized if police merely suspect it was used for a drug crime. It is then up to the property owner to sue in civil court to get their property back and prove the property is not linked to the suspected drug crime. More than 95 percent of the time property owners charged with a drug crime do not file a civil lawsuit to get back their property.
“No one acquitted in criminal court should lose his property in civil court,” said Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, one of the advocates for this legislation. “This change makes Minnesota’s law consistent with the great American presumption that a person and his property are innocent until proven guilty.”
According to the State Auditor’s report on forfeiture, Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported more than 6,850 seizures of property in 2012 worth more than $6.6 million—90 percent of which went to supplement the budgets of law enforcement agencies. The average property seized was only worth about $1,250.
Forfeitures involving controlled substances accounted for more than 3,250, or 47 percent, of reported incidents. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) was the next highest crime, accounting for 42 percent of forfeitures.
“The average seizure in Minnesota is so small that it makes little sense for even an innocent person to file a civil law suit to try to get back his property because of the high cost of hiring a lawyer,” said Max Keller, a criminal defense lawyer and representative of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who testified in support of the legislation. “Under the new law, the government will have the burden of proof that the vehicle and cash are part of the proven crime. By switching the burden of proof to the government, the new law will make it more likely that some innocent people will spend the money to get their property back. In that way, this bill is an important step toward greater protection of due process and property rights.”
The bill, SF 874, was authored by Sen. Dave Thompson (R-Lakeville) and Rep. Susan Allen (DFL-Minneapolis). It enjoyed bipartisan support and over 30 state legislators co-authored the bill. The bill was also supported by the ACLU, the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Second Chance Coalition.