As civil forfeiture faces statewide reform, some departments are making changes now

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Minnesota lawmakers and prosecutors are launching another attempt to reform a controversial state law that allows police to take cash and property connected to criminal activity — even if the owner is not actually charged with a crime.

While it’s not clear whether changing the state’s civil forfeiture law will have widespread support from law enforcement agencies, some departments are already changing their policies before the Legislature takes action.

This month, the Columbia Heights Police Department banned vehicle forfeiture completely in an effort to improve, in part, fairness and public trust, according to the police chief.

The seizing and forfeiture of vehicles in Minnesota has been controversial for years largely because, under current law, owners do not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to lose one of their most expensive possessions.

Last year, 5 INVESTIGATES found law enforcement agencies across the state took close to 14,000 vehicles through forfeiture, generating nearly $10 million for those departments over three years.

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Chief Lenny Austin in Columbia Heights declined interview requests but briefly responded by email.

“We revamped our asset forfeiture policy in accordance to what we felt worked best for this department and the community we serve,” he wrote.

The change is welcomed by Columbia Heights resident Nelle Bing, who sits on the police department’s Multicultural Advisory Committee.

“I think this is hugely positive because what’s really happening when these forfeitures happen is that people in lower [income] communities are being impacted,” Bing said. “It’s just a waterfall effect of ‘my vehicle gets seized, I can’t get to work, I can’t get my child to child care… I’m no longer making money, and now I don’t have a rent payment.’”

In addition to ending vehicle forfeiture, Columbia Heights also decided officers can no longer seize cash if it’s less than $2,000.

Police in Minnesota were recently criticized for how often they seized small amounts of cash — a practice that critics say also primarily impacts low-income communities.

In December, the nonprofit Institute for Justice gave Minnesota a near-failing grade of “D” for its handling of forfeiture because half of all cash seizures carried about by police-involved amounts of $600 or less.

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A 5 INVESTIGATES review of policies from the 50 largest departments found some departments allow officers to seize cash or vehicles regardless of how small the value.

However, the Carver County Sheriff’s Office recently changed its policy ordering deputies to no longer take any cash less than $1,000.

The new legislation introduced by Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, would raise the minimum amount of cash forfeitures to $1,500, and also limit vehicle forfeitures.

State Public Defender Bill Ward and Minnesota County Attorneys Association Executive Director Robert Small helped draft the language of the bill.

Ward estimates the new legislation would eliminate up to 75% of all forfeitures in Minnesota.

“My clients, by definition, are poor and if you’re talking about property value of less than $1,500, they’re not going to hire private counsel to try to get that money back,” Ward said.

Small said the reform is aimed at reaching a compromise with law enforcement that has resisted past efforts to change forfeiture in Minnesota.

“It preserves the ability to get ill-gotten proceeds of major crimes,” Small said. “Rent money, grocery money, that’s not what the forfeiture laws were meant to be doing. It was (for) proceeds of illegal activity.”

Despite bipartisan support for forfeiture reform in the past, groups such as the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association opposed it. This time, the organization said it is reviewing the language of the new bill and is discussing its official position.

“I don’t even think it’s the elephant in the room anymore. It’s about money,” Ward said. “It’s available cash.”