Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a member of the State’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, signed into law last week a bill that ends the police practice of civil forfeiture — a private property confiscation ruse used by law enforcement that, although it denies citizens their due process, nonetheless remains legal in many States.
Under established civil forfeiture laws, a person can lose his money and/or his property — most often a vehicle or real estate — if he can’t prove in civil court that his belongings have not been used in the commission of a drug crime or that custody of his belongings has not, at some time in the past, passed through the hands of a person accused of a drug crime. Under the former civil forfeiture law, a person does not have to be accused of a crime in order for the State to claim his property. Worse, a person can be acquitted of a drug crime in criminal court — yet still lose his belongings to the State under civil forfeiture provisions.
The new law changes all that in Minnesota, removing the burden of proof from citizens accused, but not convicted, of a crime and instead placing it back on the State. The law also affirms the right to due process of the accused, by requiring either a criminal conviction or a guilty plea before the State can enrich itself by divesting a citizen of his belongings.
“Previously,” Forbes’ Nick Sibilla explained last week, “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.”
In Minnesota, as elsewhere, an accused person’s resistance to having his property seized by the police is predictably low, thanks to a perverse conflation of civil and criminal law, as well as simple demographics.
“Most of the victims of asset forfeiture are poor and politically weak, and cannot easily fight a prolonged legal battle to get back their possessions,” The Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog noted Saturday. “In many cases, state law gives owners have [sic] so little effective opportunity to challenge the confiscation of their property that the seizures end up violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from taking away property rights without ‘due process of law.’”
Although the new Minnesota law provides a much-needed check on law enforcement’s self-enriching confiscation routine and relieves citizen bystanders caught in the crossfire of the politically charged drug war, the Volokh Conspiracy’s Ilya Somin — a George Mason law professor who’s done his share of civil liberties litigation — questions the very existence of asset forfeiture in law enforcement:
The Minnesota reform is a good step in the right direction that other states should copy. But it might be even better to simply ban asset forfeiture completely. Even if a defendant has been convicted of a crime, the appropriate remedy is to punish him for it and — if possible — force him to pay compensation to the victims. But there is no reason to allow the state to enrich itself by seizing property that happened to be somehow used in the commission of the offense, even if it was not illegally obtained and is not needed for victim compensation. If a thief uses his legitimately acquired car to flee the scene of a crime, we should certainly punish him for the theft and force him to compensate the victim for their loss. But that’s no reason to let the police seize the car and sell it for their own profit.