Minnesota curbs ‘police for profit’ asset seizure

Gov. Mark Dayton has signed a bill that protects people when their cars are used by drunk drivers.

The authorities help themselves to property when crimes are committed — it’s called “forfeiture” and even when when someone convicted of DUI uses a vehicle without permission, the innocent owner can lose it. In 2015, nearly 7,000 vehicles were forfeited.

“For spouses or family members who did not know their vehicle would be used unlawfully, it is problematic for the state to confiscate it from them,” said Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, who sponsored the law.

The fact the law was needed at all shows the problem with forfeiture.

In recent weeks, the Washington Post has reported on how authorities have helped themselves to someone else’s property, seizing more than $3 billion since 2007 from people who haven’t even been charged with a crime. That total doesn’t even include property like cars and electronics.

It’s all legal under the civil asset forfeiture laws, which allows police departments to keep the money for themselves, and puts the burden on people to challenge the seizure in court. Most don’t; there’s no right to an attorney in such a case and the seizure starts from a presumption of guilt.

“Nobody in America should lose their property without being convicted of a crime,” the Institute for Justice’s Darpana Sheth tells the Post. “If our goal is to curb crime, we should simply abolish civil forfeiture” and only forfeit property after a criminal conviction is obtained.

In a Supreme Court decision declining to hear a challenge to the laws last month, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas documented the abuses of the laws.

This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights.

In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.

These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.

In 2014, Gov. Dayton signed legislation — passed with bipartisan support — requiring a conviction before someone’s property and cash can be confiscated by law enforcement. It came in the wake of a scandal involving the Metro Gang Strike Force which — as the Star Tribune put it — “trampled arrogantly over citizens’ constitutional rights while they policed for profit.”