Minnesota- Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) signed a bill Tuesday that requires a criminal conviction of an individual before the government can claim ownership of their property in civil forfeiture cases.
In civil forfeiture cases, law enforcement seizes property that they believe has been involved in a crime. The government then directly sues the item or items in question (cash, jewelry, homes, etc.) rather than the owner, and the burden of proof is then placed onto the owner to prove that the property was not part of a crime. The process of going through civil courts to retrieve possessions is costly, sometimes costing more than the seized property itself.
When the government is allowed to seize property without having to prove guilt, there’s great potential to abuse that power.
In 2009, the Metro Gang Strike Force, a MN police unit made up of officers from multiple jurisdictions with little oversight, was discovered to have been abusing its power in civil forfeiture. While their mission was to address gang-related crime, it became known that Strike Force members had been stopping people with no connection to any crime or gang activity and confiscating their money and personal items without filing subsequent criminal charges. Some employees had kept seized items for personal use, and cash and many items simply disappeared from evidence rooms. The group was shut down and about $840,000 in restitution was given to victims of the Strike Force.
Civil forfeiture is also referred to as “policing for profit” because it’s general practice for police to transfer a large percentage of money and property from seizures to their operating budgets. In Minnesota, forfeiture revenues rose 75 percent between 2003 and 2010 despite a decline in crime.
In this new bill, people who have been found innocent of crimes no longer hold the burden of proof in civil forfeiture. The cases now may go through small claims court, and prosecutors must prove that the seized property was directly related to a crime.
It was largely the attention surrounding the Metro Gang Strike Force scandal that prompted this reform in Minnesota. Despite protests from law enforcement, civil forfeiture is no longer a stranglehold on innocent people in the state.