The Minnesota Senate is now considering a Bill to reform abusive asset forfeiture laws, SF2613.
Let’s review Minnesota’s current law on asset forfeiture (government takes your money):
- The government (police) can take your property at any time if suspicious to them, even if you are innocent.
- The burden is on you, not them, to do something about getting a court to look at it.
- If you do nothing, they keep your property, your money; and you lose; without any court or judge ever even seeing the case.
- If you want to do something about it, you need cash for a lawyer and court filing fees. The law provides the government a free lawyer and requires them to pay no court filing fees.
- The police agency that targeted you and took you down gets to keep 70% commission on the cash, valuables, your vehicle they seize from you. Could this affect their honesty about their investigation; or, the appearance of propriety?
The King vs. the Lords vs. The People
Property rights for common people are relatively recent individual human rights, against the government or the king. In 1066, William the Conqueror seized nearly all the land in England. He exercised complete power over the land, but granted fiefs to landholder stewards, who paid fees and provided military services as a condition for use of the King’s land and people.
Centuries later, the Magna Carta asserted that the government must pay cash payments for expropriations of land. Over time, tenants held more ownership rights rather than only possessory rights over their land.
The Third Amendment to the United States Constitution says:
“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
This amendment was to prevent soldiers taking over in private property as the British armed forces had done in Colonial America by under the Quartering Act before the American Revolutionary War.
Property rights for the little people?
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution says:
“No person shall be … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
The goal was to destroy lingering feudalism.
Under feudalism, the king or the government owns the property, and the common people own nothing, except at the discretion, whim or caprice of the government.
The third, fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution all attempt to further this goal.
But history has repeatedly shown us that this struggle for individual property rights against theft or seizure or taking by the ruling government has been ongoing. The common people have gained and lost, and gained again over the years, both in politics and in law.
Asset forfeiture Hypothetical?
Imagine that you are peacefully driving down the road, having an average day.
Then, people in a vehicle with weapons stop you. They hold you against your will. These people question you in a controlling manner.
And then they ask for your “consent” to search you and your vehicle, though they make it seem that it will happen regardless.
They take your personal valuables. And they seize your vehicle. But there is no court process. It’s just gone. They have it now. You no longer do. You work hard. And they take it, claiming the law.
What would you call this? Armed robbery?
What if the “people in a vehicle armed with weapons” who stopping you were police officers of the State of Minnesota, acting under the color of the laws of Minnesota?
Now what do you call it?
“Administrative Asset Forfeiture.” What does that mean?
Asset forfeiture laws are a type of government “taking” of private property that has been around a long time, but they have degenerated in recent years from “Judicial Asset Forfeiture” after conviction into “Administrative Asset Forfeiture” on a police officer’s view of suspicion. What’s the difference? First, a little background and context.
If you steal from a thief, is that stealing?
Ask Robin Hood, or the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Does every thief claim justification?
The government claims two justifications for laws permitting it to seize and keep private property it suspects to have some connection to crime:
- instrumentality, and
- criminal proceeds.
Instrumentality. If a burglar uses special tools to commit a burglary, then the government seizes and keeps those as instrumentality of the crime, this may somewhat disable the burglar from committing a similar crime. Almost all asset forfeiture seizures in Minnesota are of this type. The instrumentality rationale for property forfeiture, however, has been stretched wafer thin. It is now most commonly used in cases of suspected petty crimes like DWI, prostitution and banned drugs possession; not commonly in serious or violent crimes.
Criminal proceeds. This type is relatively rare, and involves and attempt to trace (equitable tracing) the source of the funds used to purchase an asset to crime. These usually involve larger dollar amounts only, well over $100,000 per case. The type of crime alleged is less important.
Is the Property Guilty? Is the Owner?
Nothing Personal: In Rem Jurisdiction. Few asset forfeiture cases ever make it into court. But the caption of the legal papers for those that do name the owner as a party to the lawsuit against the property (not the thief.)
Rem is Latin meaning “thing.” When courts exercise in rem jurisdiction, they assert authority over a thing, not a person. Like much in the law, there are historical reasons for this.
If the justification for the “taking” of another’s property is that the owner is a criminal, or that the property is somehow related to crime; should we be certain that the owner really did commit a crime in connection with the property?
Should police be able to seize and keep your vehicle or other property even though you’re still “presumed innocent?” And before you get a hearing before a fair and neutral magistrate?
Reversing the burden: In Minnesota today, police can seize your vehicle or other property under circumstances they view as suspicious, keep it, sell it and keep the cash, unless you file a court challenge “EXACTLY AS PRESCRIBED IN MINNESOTA STATUTES SECTION …” within 60 days.
You’ll need money for lawyer and court filing fees – just to get a day in court.
Crime does pay, for the government with its asset forfeiture laws
Conflicts of interest: The money they get from your property after they sell it? “70 percent of the money or proceeds must be forwarded to the appropriate agency…” i.e., the Police Agency that originally took your Private Property. This is Minnesota’s current “administrative” asset forfeiture scheme.
What about “Judicial Asset Forfeiture?”
Judicial asset forfeiture is slightly more fair in that it affords procedural due process – the right to notice and a hearing before a neutral magistrate before the government can permanently keep your property. But the law does not currently require a criminal conviction before the government can prevail in a judicial asset forfeiture case.
Who are the victims of government asset forfeiture?
Targeting unbanked, low-income people: The salt of the earth – the common people of modest means have disproportionately been the victims of government abuses, negligence and shoddy practices in the area of criminal law generally. When it comes to asset forfeiture laws, it is no different.
The rise of modern age feudalism?
Police officers on an asset-forfeiture treasure hunt take cash, gold, vehicles, other valuables from a person never charged, never convicted of any crime.
And what is the cost-benefit ratio for that person to fight for return of the property in court? Could they even afford (hire a lawyer, pay a court filing fee) to if they wanted to? Can they do all that in time to meet the 60 day deadline? Would that cost too much relative to what police stole from them, to be worth it?
Do they have enough faith in the legal process to believe it would be fair, anyway?
The innocent are victims of asset forfeiture laws: Sometimes the innocent owner is not accused of having any criminal association, but merely an association with another who is suspected, such as a spouse, parent or employer. This is an anti-marriage law, that encourages divorce of a troubled spouse.
The Minnesota Supreme Court recently published a case that makes this clear, and a majority of the Justices asked the Minnesota legislature to reform the statutes, in the Laase case. So will the legislature and the government heed this call, from the Court and from the People?
Is the Minnesota government corrupt, victimizing the weak? Are its laws a corrupting influence on our good police officers?
And in the meantime, protect yourself from police.
For example, avoid a marijuana arrest in a car.
The author, Thomas C Gallagher, is a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis.
His practice includes Minnesota Forfeiture cases.