On Thanksgiving Day, 2016, Aaron Dorn was arrested by state troopers in North Dakota. Aaron, who is from upstate New York, was in North Dakota protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. He was arrested in Mandan, to the west of state capital Bismarck. The officer who arrested him said Aaron had swerved his Chevrolet Silverado in order to ram his vehicle into traffic on Main Street.
Aaron was charged with reckless endangerment, and his truck was seized using a process known as civil asset forfeiture. This is a procedure used by law enforcement to take property or cash even if the owner has not been convicted of a crime. In June this year, Aaron was acquitted of all criminal charges related to his arrest. Despite this, he has been unable to get his truck back. Since the vehicle was seized in a civil process and not as part of the criminal case, it is regarded as a separate matter legally.
According to the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ), North Dakota ranks with Massachusetts as having the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the country, scoring an F grade. In North Dakota, the only standard of proof required to seize property is “probable cause” that it was involved in criminal activity. This is far below the “beyond reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases. Additionally, in order to recover property, the burden of proof is on the owner to prove innocence.
As North Dakota law enforcement agencies can receive up to 100% of the financial gain from civil asset forfeitures, critics argue that this incentivizes police to seize property, leading to accusations of “policing for profit.” Not only that, but in North Dakota there are no requirements for agencies to report or even track their civil asset forfeiture cases, meaning accountability and oversight is absent in the state.
Aaron faces an uphill battle to regain possession of his truck. “I am not a person with means,” he explains. “Everything that I own, I worked hard to get there.” He used to own a construction business but later turned to selling antiques. He would travel to antique shows across the northeast. Without his truck, Aaron has been unable to provide for his girlfriend or his three-year-old daughter.
When Morton County began civil forfeiture proceedings against his Chevrolet, attorney Burke Moore took up Aaron’s case. The only problem? Moore is an out-of-state attorney based in Texas.
In 2017, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled that attorneys from out of state could work on criminal cases which resulted from Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Moore argued that, although this case was a civil one, the same ruling allowed him to represent Aaron.
However, the day before Aaron’s civil hearing, Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Austin Gunderson asked the South Central District judge to rule that Moore was not approved to work on the case. Gunderson motioned for Aaron’s truck to be forfeited. The judge has not yet filed a judgment, although it is expected he will sign the proposal for forfeiture.
A North Dakota attorney, Eric Escarraman of Grand Forks, has said he will replace Moore on the case. Escarraman says he is considering options, including appealing if the forfeiture is approved.
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