Civil forfeiture reform bill moves forward in Minnesota House

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State lawmakers voiced strong support for reforming Minnesota’s civil forfeiture laws on Thursday, as members of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee voted, 14-1, in favor of a bill that would greatly restrict when police can take the property of those suspected, but not convicted, of certain crimes.

The bill’s author Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, called it a "compromise," noting that civil forfeiture reform has been the subject of debate at the Capitol for years.

"Now is the time for us to enact these important reforms," Moller said.

Moller’s bill would restrict when police agencies can forfeit the vehicles of those suspected of crimes such as drunk driving. It would also stop officers from seizing cash less than $1,500 during most drug arrests.

Last week, 5 INVESTIGATES reported how some individual agencies, such as the Columbia Heights Police Department, had made even more restrictive changes to their policies.

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

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nora Sandstad says the goal of the new legislation is to balance fairness with making sure law enforcement can still use forfeiture for serious crimes.

For example, police would need probable cause that a vehicle was being used to transport drugs for sale before they could permanently take the vehicle.

"Essentially we’re restricting vehicle forfeiture to drug dealers rather than individuals who may be addicted," Sandstad told the committee.

The proposed changes have received bipartisan support, but Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, signaled she planned to introduce her own bill to restrict civil forfeiture even further.

"Even though I’m supporting this effort, I think there’s more work to do," Robbins said. "I don’t think it’s fair that people forfeit their property, assets when they have not been convicted. It’s not fair to citizens."

Others, such as Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, shared concerns that there would still be a profit incentive for law enforcement and prosecutors, who share the proceeds from civil forfeiture.

"I continue to believe as long as there is a cut, no matter how small, it undermines the credibility of law enforcement and it undermines the credibility of prosecuting agencies," Liebling said. "I think it has this corrupt, corrosive effect. Not that anybody is really policing for profit, but it raises the appearance that they might be."

The Minnesota Sheriff’s Association expressed its support for the bill, but it is still unknown if other leading law enforcement groups will join them.

The bill is scheduled to be heard by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee Friday morning.

Late Thursday, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association issued the following statement:

"The bill is the result of a great deal of work from various stakeholders and contains key reforms that allow law enforcement to use important tools to investigate serious drug dealers and drug traffickers. We are neutral on the proposed language but look forward to working with the author on some technical changes to the bill."