Auditor: COVID impact on asset forfeitures lessens, impact of new laws still unclear

The latest state report on asset forfeitures — the cash and property seized by law enforcement even when an owner may not actually be criminally charged — was released Tuesday but doesn’t show the impact of newly passed laws.

The report from State Auditor Julie Blaha’s office shows nearly $11 million in forfeited property and cash was seized by Minnesota law enforcement agencies last year, a 37% increase over 2020. Of that total, the law enforcement agencies netted just shy of $7.8 million.

5 INVESTIGATES has reported extensively on the state’s controversial forfeiture law, prompting changes by state lawmakers last year. However, the changes didn’t go into effect until this year, meaning they didn’t affect the data reported by the state auditor Tuesday and their impact is still unclear.

Civil Forfeiture Reform

“While this year’s data may be further evidence on why asset forfeiture reform was needed, the effect of the new legislation will not show up in this report,” Blaha said in a statement.

A 2020 report on forfeiture from the nonprofit Institute for Justice gave the state a failing grade of “D,” in part because half of all cash seizures were less than about $600.

One of the changes lawmakers made seeks to block police from taking any amount of cash less than $1,500. However, it may take until next year to see if that’s actually making an impact.

“It’s too soon to know if the legislation is making a difference,” Blaha added.

The 37% increase in forfeiture proceeds last year came on a 7% increase in total completed forfeitures, which had declined each of the previous three years before 2021. Additionally, 91% of the forfeitures and seizures were related to DUI and controlled substance incidents, up from 85% in 2020.

However, it’s important to note that Minnesota courts suspended forfeiture proceedings when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which created backlogs and suppressed the number of forfeitures that were fully completed in the past two years. Some of those backlogs remain but the increase in completed forfeitures this year seems to be at least partly tied to the declining effects of the pandemic.

“We are seeing a decrease in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on asset forfeitures,” Blaha noted.

While lawmakers and many advocates who called for forfeiture reform in Minnesota were excited about the changes approved last year, others are less optimistic and tried to eliminate civil forfeiture completely.

For now, the impact of those changes remains uncertain.

Click here to see the full 2021 report.