A Step Toward Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

SeizedWhen’s the last time DFL and GOP legislators agreed on anything? To prove there’s an exception to every rule, lawmakers in the Minnesota House joined their counterparts in the Minnesota Senate in unanimously approving a civil asset forfeiture reform bill for Gov. Dayton’s expected signature on Monday.

The legislation, HF389SF151, essentially gives the keys to the car back to innocent victims of Minnesota’s civil forfeiture laws. Rep. Marion O’Neil (R-Maple Lake) authored the House bill.

The bill allows an innocent joint owner of a seized vehicle to petition the court to have the vehicle returned to them. If someone is convicted of a DWI and has their vehicle taken from them, under current law and a 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, the co-owner of that car like a spouse or family member does not have legal standing in court, and all parties have lost rights to that vehicle. This change gives a co-owner the right to petition the court and demonstrate by the civil legal standard of clear and convincing evidence that they had no knowledge the vehicle would be used in this unlawful manner or reasonable steps were taken to prevent the use of the vehicle by the offender.

The change in law comes in response to a 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling.

In a committee hearing last month, Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) told of his struggle as an attorney to help a client get her impounded car back from authorities who seized it when her now ex-boyfriend was driving it. “This is insane,” Lesch said. “I could not believe we created a system like that.”

The issue has long been championed by the Institute for Justice, a public interest legal group that refers to civil asset forfeiture as “policing for profit”.

This bill will open the courthouse doors to wives, parents and other innocent owner claimants and overturn a troubling ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court,” Minneosta IJ managing attorney Lee McGrath said in a statement.

It’s a small, but important step toward civil asset forfeiture reform.

On Wednesday, Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) called the bill “a good fix,” but said the state’s civil-forfeiture law still needs more work, such as removing a “conflict of interest” by which law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices receive a piece of the proceeds from the sale of seized property.

“I think it’s very wrong for law enforcement to be taking citizens’ property and to be getting a cut of the action when they do,” Liebling said.