In 2018, criminal forfeitures across Minnesota reached their highest level yet under the new, more stringent reporting guidelines required which have been in place since 2010. Across Minnesota, law enforcement agencies completed 8,091 forfeitures in 2018, an increase of 239 from 2017.
The Rice County Sheriff’s office saw a large increase in the number of forfeitures processed compared to 2017, from 6 to 21. On the other hand, Faribault and Northfield Police saw decreases in the number of forfeitures processed. Overall the number of forfeitures processed by law enforcement agencies in Rice County increased from 28 to 43.
Approximately 90% of forfeitures in Minnesota were related to DWIs or controlled substance abuse. Other reasons for forfeiture can include fleeing a police officer or burglary.
“This really is a story about drug and alcohol use and abuse," State Auditor Julie Blaha said this week at a press conference at the State Capitol.
Minnesota's civil forfeiture law has become increasingly controversial, with some viewing it as a violation of due process. In 2010, the state implemented increased reporting requirements on civil forfeiture in response to scandalous reports that the since-disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force seized vehicles, electronics, cash and other valuables from people never charged with a crime.
In 2014, the state enacted a law that barred law enforcement agencies from processing civil forfeiture until a criminal conviction has been obtained. However, law enforcement agencies can seize assets under civil forfeiture and and hold them until the criminal case is complete.
In March, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the state's civil forfeiture laws had deprived a Shakopee woman of due process. Helen Olson had her vehicle seized after her daughter Megan was arrested and charged with a DWI while driving her mother's vehicle. Because it was Megan's third DWI, the vehicle was automatically seized for civil forfeiture.
In an attempt to ensure due process, a bipartisan group of legislators have introduced legislation that would abolish civil forfeiture altogether, requiring a criminal conviction before assets can be seized. The legislation enjoys support from civil liberties groups but is strongly opposed by an assortment of police unions and law enforcement groups, the League of Minnesota Cities, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The Rice County Sheriff's Office received net proceeds of $8,538 from civil forfeitures processed in 2018. Lonsdale Police netted $5,269, Dundas Police $1,772, and Faribault Police $237 from civil forfeiture proceedings, according to the State Auditor's report released Thursday. Under Minnesota law, 70% of proceeds from forfeitures must go to DWI-related enforcement, training and education.
Even though law enforcement agencies were only able to pull in a net profit on about 60% of forfeitures last year, forfeitures still brought in net proceeds of more than $8.3 million. Three hundred seventeen Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported at least one forfeiture in 2018, while 117 did not.
Because DWIs are a criminal infraction, it can sometimes take months for the court process to be complete. Thus, some cars which were used by drivers charged with DWIs in 2017 and even 2016 did not go through the forfeiture process until 2018.
Rice County Sheriff’s Deputy Jesse Thomas handles most forfeitures for the county. Thomas said that while policies vary by department, the Rice County Sheriff’s Office takes away all vehicles from persons convicted of first- or second-degree DWI. While some departments, including Faribault and Northfield, have vehicle buyback programs, the Sheriff's Office has traditionally steered away from them.
“There’s a lot of them we don’t make any money on, some of them we actually lose money on, but we took the vehicle away from the driver,” said Thomas. “That way they couldn’t use it to get into another DWI.”