The state of Minnesota has now done what either Congress or the federal courts should have done long ago, making it the legal requirement that the government actually convict someone of a crime before it can seize the property of someone on the grounds that it was involved in the commission or was gained through that crime.
In a big win for property rights and due process, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill yesterday to curb an abusive—and little known—police practice called civil forfeiture. Unlike criminal forfeiture, under civil forfeiture someone does not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose his or her cash, car or home.
The newly signed legislation, SF 874, corrects that injustice. Now the government can only take property if it obtains a criminal conviction or its equivalent, like if a property owner pleads guilty to a crime or becomes an informant. The bill also shifts the burden of proof onto the government, where it rightfully belongs. Previously, if owners wanted to get their property back, they had to prove their property was not the instrument or proceeds of the charged drug crime. In other words, owners had to prove a negative in civil court. Being acquitted of the drug charge in criminal court did not matter to the forfeiture case in civil court.
As Lee McGrath, the executive director of the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota chapter, put it, “No one acquitted in criminal court should lose his property in civil court. This change makes Minnesota’s law consistent with the great American presumption that a person and his property are innocent until proven guilty.”The bill faced stiff opposition from law enforcement and a bottleneck in the legislature. In March, the Star Tribune called it an “outrage” that lawmakers were “dragging their feet on one of the big, common-sense changes” to the state’s forfeiture laws. Ultimately, SF 874 found wide, bipartisan support, passing the state senate 55 to 5 and the state house unanimously. The reforms will go into effect starting August 1, 2014.
Of course the police didn’t like it — they were funding their agencies through civil forfeiture to a large degree. I’m encouraged that this passed by such a huge, bipartisan margin. It’s astonishing to me that the federal courts have not already required this. It could not be more obvious to me that civil forfeiture violates the Constitution, specifically the due process clause of the 5th Amendment.
And here’s another appalling example of the police abusing their authority through civil forfeiture, seizing $100,000 from a pair of poker players traveling through Iowa after winning the money in a big tournament in Illinois.