Editorial: Reform of forfeiture laws needed

Published 9:25 am Monday, April 19, 2010

What if you were accused of a crime and forced to prove your innocence while the police and prosecutor had no burden to show you did anything wrong?

Minnesotans would be outraged at losing the long-held principle of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, the state’s asset-forfeiture law presumes people guilty, even without solid evidence.

The inequities in the forfeiture law came under renewed scrutiny with revelations that rogue cops in the Minneapolis Gang Strike Force routinely preyed on the poor by seizing their property and money without cause.

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Forfeiture laws allow for law enforcement to seize property on mere suspicions and a person doesn’t have to be arrested, charged or even accused of a specific crime to have property seized. The property can be kept or sold by law enforcement, for their benefit.

Those that do lose property are put in the untenable — and costly — position of proving they are innocent.

The Legislature needs to reform the law to require that people first be convicted before attempts are made to seize their property, make it easier for innocent owners to get their property back and require the profits from seized property be put in the state general budget — or elsewhere — to remove any financial incentive by law enforcement to take property.

Unfortunately, one bill moving through the Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, makes only minor reforms that address none of the egregious parts of the law. Other proposals offer more worthy reform.

Lawmakers are being pressured by law enforcement and prosecutors to maintain the forfeiture law. But the fact most cops do their job honestly is not reason to maintain a flawed forfeiture system that attacks the very concepts of private property ownership.

Fair seizure laws that protect property-ownership rights would not prevent law enforcement from using the tool for going after organized crime and drug kingpins.

The Legislature should support true reform of the seizure laws

— The Free Press of Mankato, April 12