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A set of changes to Minnesota's civil asset forfeiture laws more than two years in the making will now become law.
Civil forfeitures worth less than $1,500 will end except in certain drug cases where authorities can establish a direct link to criminal activity. The state is also broadening its data collection to study how the seized proceeds are used by law enforcement organizations and local governments.
The new policies mark a victory for State Auditor Julie Blaha, who made reshaping Minnesota's asset forfeiture laws an early priority of her first term.
Blaha's office discovered, while conducting a study of forfeitures carried out in 2019, that the average forfeiture under $1,500 was $473. She also found that forfeitures meeting that criteria added up to a tiny fraction of the $1.7 billion in local government spending on police and sheriffs' services that year.
That led Blaha to conclude that ending smaller asset forfeiture could be a measure with a major effect on individual Minnesotans without "rocking the system."
"The idea of getting rid of the instruments of crime — that's fair," Blaha said. "I think we can all agree that's reasonable. But I think you could argue that I don't know if that $473 is really going to stop that drug ring. But it may cause homelessness or childlessness, and that's pretty extreme."
Chas Anderson, a veteran political strategist, helped organize a coalition of advocates, law enforcement and county prosecutors to study the issue and at one point brought in a mediator to help broker a compromise on the legislative proposals.
Anderson said the group struck an agreement on what to propose in February 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic arrested progress on trying to pass the reforms last year. Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, and Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, were chief sponsors of the legislation in their respective bodies that ultimately passed this year.
"We've done smaller reforms on forfeiture but I think this is really in a long time the first major reform that has passed the Legislature," Anderson said. "It's good to see that and we'll see how the law is implemented, how big of an impact it will have."
The laws take effect Jan. 1.
They also include new policies around vehicle forfeitures, such as no longer seizing vehicles from defendants who fail to appear in court. Drivers can also have vehicle forfeiture proceedings halted in certain impaired driving cases by participating in the ignition interlock program and being accepted into treatment court.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor will issue its own report on the efficacy of the changes in the coming years. Blaha said she also looks forward to further review of the new requirements to help settle best practices in the area of asset forfeiture just as her office's report in 2019 helped affirm her position on forfeitures under $1,500.
Looking ahead, Blaha added that she would like to consider expanding data collection to study demographic trends in asset forfeiture to determine whether any racial disparities are present.