A bill introduced by a metro legislator earlier this year has raised concerns among local law enforcement that a funding source that helps pay for specialized training and equipment could dry up.
“If the forfeitures went away it would be a big hit to our local agencies and to agencies across the state,” said Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn.
In Minnesota, forfeitures allow property involved in certain crimes — drug crimes, repeat DWIs, burglary and theft — to be seized. With a court’s permission, that property is sold. Proceeds from forfeitures go to the agencies working the cases, mainly law enforcement and prosecutors. But if legislation similar to a 2019 bill from Rep. John Lesch, D-S. St. Paul, is passed, more of that money will go to the state.
Lesch, the bill’s chief author, agreed to kill his 2019 bill, but in an interview last week with the Daily News, promised to introduce another version when the Legislature reconvenes next year.
“There will be another bill, it will be more aggressive,” Lesch said, pointing to the abuse of forfeiture laws by the now disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force. While there have been modifications to those laws, Lesch wants more done to ensure individual rights aren’t being trampled.
That would affect area residents as well as the Rice County Sheriff’s Office, and Faribault and Northfield Police departments. The Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Office, which is a member of the Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force, would be impacted, too. Dunn estimated the Rice County law enforcement could lose $100,000 if forfeiture dollars are redirected.
Asset forfeitures can take two forms: judicial or administrative.
Judicial forfeitures require clear and convincing evidence that the person was involved with the crime for the property to be taken, while property taken under an administrative forfeiture will automatically be seized if the person charged of a crime — specifically substance violations, DWI offenses, and drive-by shootings — does not attend a hearing. The accused has a right to a hearing and if they prevail they regain their property. If they lose, the funds from selling the property go to the agencies that took part in the case.
A Minnesota House Research report cited with Lesch’s bill discussed a February 2019 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the state of Indiana took a woman’s $42,000 vehicle through forfeiture. The high court found that the Eighth Amendment dealing with excessive fines does apply to states and sent the case back to the Indiana courts.
Minnesota isn’t the only state to consider changing forfeiture laws. States across the country are looking into whether law enforcement agencies are abusing the laws and how to improve the system. In some cases, new laws require the individual be convicted of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt — the threshold in civil cases — in order for property and cash to be forfeited.
But Rice County’s Dunn, who, along with a coalition of other law enforcement leaders from around the state, met with the legislators this spring, says that’s not the case in Rice and Le Sueur counties.
Locally, forfeiture money typically goes to officer training, equipment, including undercover and surveillance equipment. Dunn said funds cover overtime as well, especially for the extra hours law enforcement puts in to keep the roads safe.
“Law enforcement thinks it’s a valid tool to stop criminal activities,” said Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, who explained that by taking property related to drug crimes, police are able to hinder the distribution of the drugs.
Property that is taken mainly includes guns, cash in proximity to drugs, and vehicles that are directly connected to drug crimes.
Chief Deputy Jesse Thomas, of the Rice County Sheriff’s Office, reiterated Dunn’s comments about abuse of the law, noting that local departments don’t take property from innocent people. Thomas explained that if the forfeitures were no longer available, then agencies would go without important resources or the costs would fall to taxpayers.
While Lesch won’t submit a replacement bill until early next year, there’s already been one change to the state’s forfeiture law.
Repeat DWI offenders can now regain their property by successfully completing an ignition interlock program which requires the offender to breathe into a tube before starting their vehicle. If no alcohol is detected in their breath, the car will start, then prompt the driver to blow into the tube every 15 minutes to ensure the driver has not been drinking.
Lesch said that if the law enforcement coalition comes up with a proposal to reform itself, he’d be willing to consider its suggestions.