Controversial law allows police to seize and sell cars of non-lawbreakers, keeping the proceeds

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A controversial law that allows police in Minnesota to take and sell someone’s personal property is coming under more scrutiny after the state patrol seized a woman’s car during a drunk driving stop late last year, even though she was not driving or charged with a crime.

Emma Dietrich recently paid thousands of dollars to buy back a 2013 Chevy Camaro that she had already paid off.

"I really hate that I had to do a buy-back, but mentally, financially, emotionally, I can’t handle this case being in limbo for maybe two more years," Dietrich said.

Troopers seized Dietrich’s car under Minnesota’s forfeiture law that has allowed police agencies across the state to take close to 14,000 vehicles, generating nearly $10 million for those departments in just three years, according to a review of statewide data by 5 INVESTIGATES.

However, that immense revenue stream is being increasingly challenged by several lawmakers and judges who question the fairness of the law which also allows police to take the vehicles of those who have never been charged or convicted of a crime.

Doing the right thing?

Dietrich, 22, said she thought she was "doing the right thing" when she chose not to get behind the wheel after having drinks with coworkers when she finished a shift at a local restaurant in December.

"I didn’t really feel comfortable driving home, so one of my coworkers was like, ‘I can give you a ride home,’" Dietrich said.

Dietrich says she did not know the coworker who took her keys had a prior DWI.

She was in the passenger seat when a state trooper clocked her car at 118 miles per hour on I-94 in St. Paul.

When the driver, Syrgeo Perez, 30, refused a breathalyzer, he was arrested on suspicion of DWI and troopers seized Dietrich’s car using Minnesota’s forfeiture law.

About three out of four cars, trucks, and other vehicles seized by police in Minnesota between 2016 and 2018 were related to drunk driving offenses, based on data collected by the Office of the State Auditor.

Police have often stated the goal of those seizures is to stop repeat offenders from driving, but 5 INVESTIGATES found vehicles are also taken from owners like Dietrich who have never been charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI).

She says the State Patrol told her she was still being held responsible for her coworker’s actions.

"That the right thing to do was to have a complete history of his driving infractions and to also give him a sobriety test. That is what they said I should have done," Dietrich said.

"Unreasonable Standard"

Lawyers and lawmakers who’ve been trying to change Minnesota’s forfeiture law say State Patrol held Dietrich to an unreasonable standard.

"You’re asking one drunk person to determine whether another person is fit to drive. That’s absurd," said attorney Chuck Ramsay.

He did not represent Dietrich, but last year Ramsay took another forfeiture case to the Minnesota Supreme Court which ordered Shakopee police to return a car it seized after the owner’s daughter was arrested for drunk driving.

The court did not find the state law to be completely unconstitutional, but its ruling did raise serious concerns about how forfeiture is carried out by police in some cases.

"Most critically, (the law) provides no assessment whatsoever— let alone a reliable assessment— that the State has the legal authority to permanently take the vehicle of a purportedly innocent owner," wrote the court in its opinion.

This document highlights Minnesota’s forfeiture law.

"It seems the policy of most police departments is ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ — take the vehicle and then figure out if it’s proper. And even so, they only have to return it if a judge says so," Ramsay said.

Judges ordered law enforcement to return vehicles to their owners more than 600 times in three years, according to the statewide data.

Reforms come up short

State Representative John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul has repeatedly authored bills to try to reform asset forfeiture in Minnesota.

Lawmakers again expressed interest in changing the law during a remote meeting of the House Judiciary Committee just this month, but so far, all efforts have failed.

Despite bipartisan support for a compromise that would have added protections for "innocent owners," Lesch and others blame opposition from the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association for killing his latest bill earlier this year.

"When you’re taking vehicles from innocent owners… you’re not making anyone safer, you’re just lining your pockets," Lesch said. "It’s not the right way to fund law enforcement… even law enforcement knows that."

This graph shows Minnesota State Patrol forfeiture spending from 2017-2019.

Policy vs. Practice

The Minnesota Police Chiefs Association declined interview requests from 5 INVESTIGATES, as did State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer, and Assistant Public Safety Commissioner Booker Hodges who oversees State Patrol.

In a statement, Langer said State Patrol is "committed to enforcing DWI laws" which include vehicle forfeiture "for the most serious DWI violations and repeat offenders."

But Langer did not address questions about Emma Dietrich’s case or innocent owners, so 5 INVESTIGATES approached State Patrol spokesperson Lt. Gordon Shank at a recent event.

"We follow state statutes as they’re written, and we operate under our current policies," Shank said.

State Patrol policy on forfeiture states that the agency operates "without consideration of the value of the object or monetary benefit to the Department."

Dietrich’s mother, Shannon, says she’s skeptical of that policy based on a question State Patrol asked after seizing her daughter’s Camaro.

"They asked if the car had a clean title, if it had a lien release, if Emma still owed money on it," Shannon Dietrich said. "I thought it was a really odd question."

Dietrich had recently paid off the last of her Camaro’s almost $17,000 price tag — a car that now belonged to State Patrol.

"If there’s no lien on the vehicle, the police and the prosecutor get 100 percent of those proceeds," Ramsay said. "They are taking her car that was unencumbered by any lien, solely for the money. They had discretion not to take it, but they chose to take it."

The buy-back

Dietrich initially hired a lawyer and initiated the bizarre civil process of disputing the seizure of her car by filing a lawsuit against the vehicle itself.

But she was told her claim would have to wait for the criminal proceedings against the driver, Perez, to conclude — that case was indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is still unresolved.

"You should be entitled to due process within a reasonable amount of time, you know," Dietrich said in June.

By July — seven months after losing a car she had already paid off — Dietrich gave up her fight and instead agreed to buy back the vehicle from State Patrol for $4,000. It’s a price she had to negotiate with prosecutors from the Minnesota Attorney General’s office who represent State Patrol.

Attorney General Keith Ellison has not yet responded to interview requests from 5 INVESTIGATES.

Dietrich says the final insult — her Camaro is now required to display "whiskey plates" which are used to help police identify drivers with a history of drunk driving convictions — a crime for which Dietrich has never been charged.

"It just makes no sense to me," Dietrich said. "But at least it’s finally coming to a close. I just want it over."

Eric Rasmussen can be reached by phone at 651-642-4534 or by email here.