Minnesota law enforcement agencies completed more than 8,000 asset forfeitures in 2018 with gross sales of that forfeited property totaling more than $11 million.
Slightly more than $1 million was eventually returned to the owner, while more than $8 million in net proceeds went to law enforcement agencies or other institutions.
Advocates for forfeiture reform had the opportunity to make their case Wednesday during an informational hearing held by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division. In addition to testimony on asset forfeiture, members discussed three other subjects:
Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair, said the hearing was meant to help lawmakers as they work to guarantee Minnesota courts ensure just outcomes in each of those areas.
“We are taking the opportunity to hear from practitioners and stakeholders to reexamine and reevaluate the way the judiciary system currently works,” Lesch said.
State Auditor Julie Blaha told the division the most recent asset forfeiture report produced by her office, in 2018, showed that 61 percent of forfeitures that year were vehicles, with DWI or other substance use offenses most often the cause.
Jason Flohrs, state director of the Minnesota chapter of Americans for Prosperity, spoke in favor of reforms such as expanded use of ignition interlock for DWI offenders and focusing forfeitures on repeat offenders. He said reform would help law enforcement agencies focus on people who pose a legitimate threat to public safety while better safeguarding civil liberties.
“Even if an individual is never charged with a crime, their property can be seized and ultimately forfeited,” Flohrs said. “Under current law, people wishing to reclaim that seized property must engage in expensive, very time-consuming litigation in order to get their property back, which oftentimes costs more than the value of the seized currency or property itself.”
Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) raised concerns about law enforcement agencies that receive a cut of the money raised by forfeitures, saying it gives an appearance of impropriety and undermines their legitimacy at a time when public confidence is already shaky.
“I think this is a big, big deal, even if it’s two cents,” Liebling said. “It’s got to end.”
Lesch said he previously introduced legislation intended to address reforms in each of the areas discussed and would continue to pursue the issues in the months to come.
“If we get an opportunity to move anything in the special sessions we will, but it will be a priority for us next year,” Lesch said.