Minnesota Bills Take on Asset Forfeiture, Would Close Federal Loophole

ST PAUL, Minn. (March 16, 2018) – Bills introduced in the Minnesota legislature would reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state from taking property without a criminal conviction. The legislation also takes on federal forfeiture programs by banning prosecutors from circumventing state laws by passing cases off to the feds in most situations.

A bipartisan coalition of 15 representatives introduced House Bill 3725 (HF3725) on March 14. A companion bill, SF3419, was introduced by a bipartisan Senate coalition the following day. The legislation would reform Minnesota law by requiring a criminal conviction before prosecutors could proceed with asset forfeiture and would end civil asset forfeiture in the state.

The Institute of Justice gave Minnesota’s asset forfeiture laws a D-. The state revamped the forfeiture law to require a criminal conviction in some cases back in 2014, but left the civil forfeiture procedures in place.

Passing this legislation would also close a loophole that allows state and local police to get around more strict state asset forfeiture laws in a vast majority of situations. This is particularly important in light of a new policy directive issued last July by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ).

FEDERAL LOOPHOLE

A federal program known as “Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption.The new DOJ directive reiterates full support for the equitable sharing program, directs federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and sets the stage to expand it in the future.

Law enforcement agencies often bypass more strict state forfeiture laws by claiming cases are federal in nature. Under these arrangements, state officials simply hand cases over to a federal agency, participate in the case, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. However, when states merely withdraw from participation, the federal directive loses its impact.

Until recently, California faced this situation.The state has some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but state and local police were circumventing the state process by passing cases to the feds. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked as the worst offender of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013. In other words, California law enforcement was passing off a lot of cases to the feds and collecting the loot. The state closed the loophole in 2016.

H3725 and SF3419 would close this loophole in most situations by effectively withdrawing from the federal program.

An appropriate agency shall not refer, transfer, or otherwise relinquish possession of property seized under state law to a federal agency by way of adoption of the seized property or other means by the federal agency for the purpose of the property’s forfeiture under federal law.

An appropriate agency or participant in a joint task force or other multijurisdictional collaboration with the federal governmentshall not accept payment of any kind or distribution of forfeiture proceeds resulting from a joint task force or other multijurisdictional collaboration unless the aggregate net equity value of the property and currency seized in a case exceeds $100,000, excluding the value of contraband.

As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.

Why?

We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.

WHAT’S NEXT

H3725 was referred to the House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.

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