My Point of View: State should reconsider proposed forfeiture law

Published 10:00 pm Monday, June 25, 2018

My Point of View, By Ebenezer Howe III

Different types of civil forfeiture actions have been authorized by the Minnesota Legislature. The most common type used is administrative forfeiture.

Ebenezer Howe

Items such as money, jewelry, motor vehicles or firearms that are found near controlled substances or drug manufacturing equipment are subject to administrative forfeiture. At the time of the seizure, the owner is given a Notice of Seizure and Intent to Forfeit. The owner then has 60 days to request a judicial determination of the propriety of the forfeiture. If the owner fails to request a judicial determination within the 60-day period, the items are automatically forfeited to the state. If the owner requests a judicial determination, a hearing date is set in which a judge determines whether the forfeiture should be allowed. Proceeds from the forfeitures are split 70 percent to the local law enforcement organization, 20 percent to judicial and 10 percent to the general fund. This makes it ripe for abuse.

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The goals of the forfeiture statutes are to reduce crime; to reduce the economic incentive to commit crime; and to divert unlawfully used property into law enforcement programs.

Lee McGrath, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice Minnesota Office says, “Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest assaults on the right to due process and private property.”

Spurred by abuses of the state’s forfeiture laws (particularly by the now defunct Metro Gang Strike Force in 2009), lawmakers passed a bill in 2014 that requires a conviction in criminal court before someone’s property could be forfeited in civil court, according to a press release from the institute. But the reform did not apply to administrative forfeitures, or cases where the owner could not or did not challenge the forfeiture case in civil court.

According to the state auditor, 95 percent of drug-related forfeitures and 97 percent of DUI-related forfeitures were administrative, the release stated. Statewide, the average forfeiture was just under $1,700.

“Far too often, it costs more to hire a lawyer to fight for the seized property than what the property itself is actually worth,” said Institute for Justice legislative counsel Meagan Forbes. “This system stacks the deck against innocent Minnesotans and forces many owners to walk away.”

Taken from a March 19 Star Tribune article: “Consider the story of Stephany Walker, a single mother and home health care worker for a disabled child. In 2016, she let her now ex-boyfriend use her car to run an errand, but he was pulled over. Law enforcement determined the car’s license plates did not match the registration. The vehicle was impounded after a vial containing a small amount of cough syrup was found during a search.

“But neither Stephany nor her ex-boyfriend was ever charged with a crime. However, months after her car was seized, Stephany was still fighting to get it back. Without her car, she was forced to take cabs to work, expenses that left her essentially homeless. And Stephany had to continue making her monthly car payments, even though her vehicle was in law enforcement’s possession.”

Now, not for one second, do I think that Stephany or her ex-boyfriend were pure as the driven snow, but in this case, neither were convicted of a crime so no in way should property have been confiscated.

This last legislative session, Rep. Jim Klobach and Sen. Scott Newman authored new legislation, HF 3725 and SF 3419, and according to their press release, it would enact sweeping comprehensive reforms such as: “end both civil forfeiture and administrative forfeiture, and replace them with criminal forfeiture; re-direct forfeiture proceeds away from law enforcement and towards victim restitution, crime prevention or the general fund. This would eliminate the incentive to ‘police for profit.’ Since 2000, forfeiture has yielded over $90 million in proceeds.” The legislation would also “restore the presumption of innocence by shifting the burden of proof from innocent, third-party owners onto the state — where it belongs; raise the standard of proof in forfeiture litigation to clear and convincing evidence; and institute new comprehensive reporting requirements.”

It did not get far this year but did pass in the Minnesota House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee. I hope more jump on board next year.

Following a conversation with one of the sheriffs’ deputies, I don’t think we in Freeborn County have much of an issue with misuse of the current forfeiture laws but would still rather err on the side of the free citizens.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett was quoted in a June 12 article on the child care shortage that she was exploring legislation next year to pattern a child care provider loan program after Rural Finance Authority loans to farmers. She plans to research the issue and talk to providers “to see if this idea is workable and would actually help with the shortage problem.”

I wonder if anyone thought about thinking this through before the forfeiture laws were introduced.

Alden resident Ebenezer Howe is chairman of the Freeborn County Republican Party. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the local party members.