New national report gives Minnesota a 'D' for civil forfeiture

Eric Rasmussen
Updated: December 30, 2020 05:20 PM
Created: December 30, 2020 05:06 PM

Minnesota received a near-failing grade of "D" for the state's laws involving civil forfeiture in a new report released by the nonprofit Institute for Justice (IJ) earlier this month.

New report finds civil forfeiture rakes in billions each year, does Not fight crime

The report, titled "Policing for Profit," found Minnesota law enforcement agencies generated more than $162 million over the last 20 years through civil forfeiture, which allows police to seize cash and property from people who are suspected, but not yet convicted, of certain crimes.

IJ Managing Attorney Lee McGrath is among those calling for the state to replace civil forfeiture with criminal forfeiture – a process that requires someone to be convicted of a crime before their property can be taken.

"Crime should not pay, but the process is wrong," McGrath said.

State lawmakers have repeatedly attempted and failed to make major changes to forfeiture in Minnesota, but McGrath and others say they're more optimistic about a different outcome in 2021 because of sweeping calls for reform after the death of George Floyd in police custody in May.

"It is how law enforcement and prosecutors interact with the public and that is getting greater scrutiny," McGrath said.

The IJ report also found cash seized by law enforcement in Minnesota often involves relatively small amounts of money. Half of the state's currency forfeitures were worth less than $607. The average cash forfeiture is about $1,300 nationwide.

Advocates say the cost to challenge such forfeiture in civil court is often higher than the amount of money seized.

"They know that nearly 80% of Minnesotans will walk away," McGrath said. "That gives license to an aggressive use of seizure and forfeiture powers."

In August, a 5 INVESTIGATES review of state records found police agencies across the state took nearly 14,000 vehicles, generating almost $10 million for those departments in just three years.

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

The IJ report gives neighboring Wisconsin an "A-" for its forfeiture laws – primarily because law enforcement agencies do not keep most of the proceeds generated through the seizure of cash and other property.

But advocates such as McGrath hold out New Mexico as the "gold standard" for reform. That state eliminated all civil forfeiture in 2015 and now requires someone to be convicted of a crime before authorities can take their property.

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