Minnesota lawmakers are reportedly making another attempt to reform a controversial state statute that allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash and property they believe is connected to criminal activity—even if the owner is not actually charged with a crime.
The use of civil forfeiture to seize cash and vehicles in Minnesota has been controversial for years largely because, under the current system, owners do not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to lose their property.
An investigative report by a local news source found that police departments in Minnesota seized approximately 14,000 vehicles using civil asset forfeiture in 2020. The practice reportedly generated nearly $10 million for those departments over the course of three years. A review of the 50 largest departments found some of them allow officers to seize cash or vehicles regardless of value, press sources indicate.
Rep. Kelly Moller (D-Shoreview) and Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (D-Roseville) introduced House Bill 75 (HF75) on January 14, 2021. The bill seeks to establish a process to protect innocent owners from having their property seized if it is used by a third party to commit a crime. It would also place limits on vehicle forfeitures, raise the minimum amount of cash seizures to $1,500, and bolster reporting requirements for forfeitures conducted in the state.
HF75 additionally seeks to withdraw Minnesota from the federal Equitable Sharing Program, which allows prosecutors to bypass strict state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases to the federal government. Under the current system, state officials can hand forfeiture cases to a federal agency in exchange for up to 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds. HF75 would close that loophole.
While it’s not clear whether the reforms in HF75 will have widespread support of local and state law enforcement agencies, some police departments have already started changing their policies before the state’s lawmakers take action.
Last month, the Columbia Heights Police Department announced a complete ban on vehicle forfeiture in an effort to improve trust and fairness in the community, according to the police chief. “We revamped our asset forfeiture policy in accordance to what we felt worked best for this department and the community we serve,” Chief Lenny Austin told the press.
In addition to criticism for vehicle seizures, police in Minnesota are also criticized for how often they seize small amounts of cash—a practice critics of forfeiture argue primarily impacts low-income communities. In response, Columbia Heights announced it has set a threshold for cash seizures and officers can no longer confiscate cash if it is less than $2,000. The Carver County Sheriff’s Office also recently changed its policy to prohibit its deputies from seizing any cash less than $1,000.
Despite bipartisan support for change in recent years, groups such as the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association have been against forfeiture reform. This new bill aims to reach a compromise with law enforcement agencies that have resisted past reform efforts.
HF75 was referred to the Committee on Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division, where it must pass by a majority vote before moving on to the next step in the legislative process. If signed into law by the governor, it could potentially eliminate up to 75 percent of all forfeitures in Minnesota.
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