Five years after scandal rocked Minnesota’s law enforcement community, the state government has finally reformed the state’s lax, abuse-prone civil asset forfeiture laws.
Unlike some states that have quietly rolled back reforms or have seen their remarkably modest efforts stymied by opposition from law enforcement time and again, Minnesota tackled reform head-on. And its citizens are better off for it.
Rewind to 2009. Minnesotans faced the specter of having their property and money seized without cause by the infamous (and now defunct) Metro Gang Strike Force. Officers notoriously abused the state’s forfeiture laws. They lifted property and money from guilty and innocent alike, often without any evidence of wrongdoing. Minnesota residents became ATMs and their living rooms became convenience stores. After all, someone needed to finance strike force trips to Hawaiian conferences and supply agents with television sets.
But the whole scheme came crashing down. Amid federal and state investigations, the strike force was shut down and some $840,000 in settlements was paid out to those whose property had been wrongfully seized. Other legal actions netted millions in settlements.
Fast forward to 2014. Under Minnesota’s new law, while authorities will be able to retain seized property, they will have to obtain a criminal conviction (or an admission of guilt) before the civil forfeiture action can proceed. Therefore, the new law has the added benefit of ensuring that police go through the time and effort of actually arresting criminals engaged in illegal activity rather than offering them freedom in exchange for their cash.
While police may still profit from successful civil forfeitures, the new conviction requirement will add a layer of protection against the sort of evidence-less roadside shakedowns seen elsewhere. The state will also bear the burden of proving wrongdoing in any civil forfeiture case by clear and convincing evidence.
The reforms passed with overwhelming support by lawmakers and were quickly signed into law by Governor Mark Dayton. Other states considering how to protect their citizens from civil forfeiture law abuses should look to Minnesota as an example of what is possible when a state commits itself to the cause.