Even though he was acquitted of the criminal charge leveled against him, Aaron Dorn still lost his truck to a process known as civil asset forfeiture. Inspired by Aaron’s case, a North Dakota state representative is introducing a bill to reform civil forfeiture in the state.
Last summer, I reported on Dorn’s situation. In the fall of 2016, he had traveled from his home in New York state to join the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Aaron was arrested by a police officer who claimed Dorn had attempted to ram the officer’s police car with his 2003 Chevrolet Silverado.
Dorn was charged with “reckless endangerment,” and his truck was taken by police using civil asset forfeiture. This is the legal procedure where police can take an individual’s property or cash if it was suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, assets may be seized even when the property owner has not been convicted of—or even charged with—any crime.
According to the libertarian Institute for Justice, North Dakota ties with Massachusetts as having the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the country. Not only are no criminal charges required, but police are only required to show “probable cause” to take property. This is far below the standard of proof required in criminal cases, which is that evidence must show guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Civil asset forfeiture is an important source of revenue for law enforcement in North Dakota as agencies may keep up to 100 percent of the profits from seizures. This has led to criticism of the practice as encouraging “policing for profit.”
State Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck) wants to see the law changed to protect innocent owners. He is introducing a bill which would only allow civil asset forfeiture to take place if an owner is convicted of a crime.
“If you were eventually not even charged, or if you were acquitted, or if you were found not guilty,” said Becker, “then it should just be an automatic ‘I get my stuff back.’”
The proposed bill would also require law enforcement agencies to send the proceeds of civil forfeitures into the state schools trust. Agencies would further be required to produce reports on property that had been seized and forfeited.
This will be Becker’s second attempt to reform civil asset forfeiture in the state. In 2017, his bill passed the House, but was opposed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and received no votes in its favor in the Senate.
State Sen. Diane Larson (R-Bismarck), who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said she will assess Becker’s bill after it has been voted on in the House. This is “a complicated issue,” she explained.
Whatever the outcome, it will be too late for Dorn. Even though all criminal charges against Dorn were dropped in June of last year, the seizure of his truck was approved later in the summer. Dorn was unable to find a lawyer who would represent him and was unable to appeal the decision as a result.
“Just because I’m from New York doesn’t mean that laws in other states are not affecting me,” said Dorn who may travel to North Dakota to testify on Becker’s bill. “Look at my case, I traveled through your state, I got wrapped up in some legal case, and then I got my truck stolen.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.