New report shows controversial law still generating millions for police in Minnesota

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A controversial law that allows police in Minnesota to take and sell someone’s personal property generated another $7.5 million for law enforcement agencies in 2019, according to a new round of data released by the Office of the State Auditor on Wednesday morning.

The auditor’s annual report showed a slight drop in the number of "completed forfeitures" of vehicles, cash and other property from 2018, but forfeitures are still up 15% over the last five years.

The Minnesota State Patrol seized more property than any other agency, completing 1,383 forfeitures in 2019. The majority of forfeitures involved vehicles seized after someone was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, but as 5 INVESTIGATES recently found, the owner of the vehicle isn’t always the person who is charged with a crime.

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

Law enforcement’s use of forfeiture and the significant revenue it generates has drawn criticism from lawyers, lawmakers and advocates such as the non-profit Institute for Justice (IJ).

"Forfeiture should be used against large international drug cartels and not against average Minnesotans," said IJ Managing Attorney Lee McGrath.

He and others want Minnesota to follow the lead of other states such as New Mexico and replace civil forfeiture with criminal forfeiture.

"Criminal forfeiture requires that you be convicted of a crime. And then in the same courtroom, before the same jury, and the same judge the question is determined whether the car or whether that cash was an instrument or proceeds of the crime," McGrath said.

Instead, police in Minnesota can seize vehicles and other property and require owners to go to civil court if they want to try to get their property back.

Despite a recent reform bill receiving bipartisan support from state lawmakers in the Minnesota House of Representatives earlier this year, it never got a companion bill in the Senate. The bill’s author, State Rep. John Lesch, (DFL-St. Paul) and others blamed the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association for opposing the proposed reforms.

The Chiefs Association and the State Patrol declined repeated requests for interviews on the subject. A statement from State Patrol only said the agency uses forfeiture for "the most serious DWI violations and repeat offenders."

In her report Wednesday, Auditor Julie Blaha also noted a large number of forfeitures involving property and cash valued at less than $1,500.

"The big story is in the small numbers," Blaha said. "If you have $500 seized, that may be the difference between making rent this month or slipping into homelessness… losing that old car may mean you can’t get to work and you lose your job."

While Blaha rarely weighs in on the merits reforms at the State Capitol, she said eliminating forfeiture involving such small amounts of cash or property would have relatively little impact on law enforcement budgets.

"When you’ve got something that doesn’t rattle the system too badly, but really impacts individuals, that is a really good place to look at reform," Blaha said.