Police seize a car in connection with a drug bust. Later, though, the owner/driver is found to be not guilty of any offense.
So, what happens to the car?
If you think it gets returned to the owner, you’re wrong, at least in most states. Instead, police can keep and sell the vehicle, under certain circumstances. And in Minnesota, the department gets to keep much of the money, too.
Now, a group of Minnesota legislators wants to change that.
Here’s hoping their effort succeeds, because current civil forfeiture laws offend Americans’ senses of both justice and decency and offer too much potential for abuse.
“A move that would bar cops from keeping property and cash seized in drug cases when there is no criminal conviction is the flash point of a debate between law enforcement and civil liberties advocates,” the Star Tribune reported earlier this month.
“The laws have become a growing source of cash for law enforcement agencies. … Under current law, police or sheriffs can keep property, vehicles and cash seized in drug cases or drive-by shootings - regardless of the outcome of the criminal case. If a suspect is found not guilty, they can still lose their property in civil court unless they can prove it was not involved in a crime.
“The bill would require prosecutors to return the property if there is no criminal conviction associated with the seizure. A companion bill would allow spouses and other innocent owners to raise claims when their property is forfeited due to someone else’s criminal activity.”
The companion bill would make Minnesota’s law somewhat more like the statute that prevails in North Dakota.
North Dakotans also are subject to civil forfeiture - and civil forfeiture abuse. But North Dakota “does offer some important protections,” reports the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that has graded forfeiture laws in all 50 states.
“Under North Dakota law, residences and other real estate are not subject to forfeiture if they are co-owned by someone who has not been convicted of the underlying criminal offense.
“Additionally, none of the proceeds from civil forfeiture flow to law enforcement in North Dakota.”
That latter provision elevates North Dakota’s forfeiture grade from the Institute to a B-plus, one of only three states to be awarded a B or higher.
Minnesota, in contrast, gets a C. Moreover, law enforcement in Minnesota “receives as much as 90 percent of the value of forfeited property, thus providing a profit incentive to law enforcement to focus on civil forfeitures instead of other law enforcement duties.”
By the way, the Institute for Justice is a libertarian law firm. But on this issue, it’s allied with the American Civil Liberties Union, marking a rare agreement between liberal and conservative groups that a law violates Americans’ rights.
To repeat: “Under Minnesota’s civil forfeiture laws, police can seize your car, cash and other property without ever charging you with or convicting you of a crime,” the Institute declares.
No wonder the ACLU also objects, and no wonder the Institute labels civil forfeiture “one of the greatest threats to property rights in Minnesota and across the nation.”
The groups have a point, and the Minnesota Legislature should pay attention.