Can Police Seize My Property?

Civil forfeiture law in Minnesota

By Benjy Schirm

In 2016, Minnesota’s police seized $7.4 million from Minnesotans and out-of-state residents. These gains were legally taken from citizens, and have been a steady stream of income for the state at no less than $6.7 million per year. This money comes directly from taxpayers—at times, without any related criminal charges; it affects thousands of Minnesotans each year. 

How is this possible? Civil forfeiture.

The old law of forfeiture allowed police to seize any property associated with a crime, and then to sell the property immediately at auction. The proceeds were split 80/20 with the prosecutors in that jurisdiction. It sounds like a fair deal, so long as this practice isn’t abused. If a spouse, child or friend borrowed a car from a loved one and was stopped for drunk driving, this car could have been taken and sold. Despite the fact that the driver did not own the car, a police officer and prosecutor could have earned nearly free revenue for their departments from a sale. From some perspectives, this could be seen as legalized stealing.

In April 2017, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a bill that “protects drivers when their vehicles are used by drunk drivers.” Under the bill, enforcement agencies still have the power to take—and then sell for a profit—any property that is being used to commit crimes of a certain nature. However, the law now states that property cannot be seized until the conclusion of the criminal case. Again, this sounds great in theory, but this means the police can hold the property for months or even years.

Lower-income citizens are disproportionately affected by these forfeitures. One-car families would be forced to deal with not having a car for the pendency of the case. Further, they are often charged the storage fees and court fees after the case is resolved, which can be more expensive than the vehicle was worth in the first place. 

Civil forfeiture can further be problematic because, to get their own property back, a person must prove the property was not purchased with illegal funds—or that the owner didn’t know the property would be used to commit a crime. This provision is called the “innocent owner” statute. If the owner can prove that either the person charged with a crime was not authorized to use the property, or that the owner didn’t know it was likely they would use the property in the commission of a crime, then they are given their property back.  

Civil forfeiture is explained as a measure to prevent criminals from accessing the instruments they used to break the law. Effectively, it accomplishes that goal.

There is no right to a public defender in civil forfeiture hearings, but one may hire an attorney on their own. So if you find yourself in a situation involving civil forfeiture, the smartest thing to do is contact a reputable and experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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