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Imagine police seize your money, your car, even your house. Imagine this happens without you being convicted of a crime or even charged with one. Imagine being told you must sue the government to get back your property and prove you did nothing wrong, and the government can do nothing – nothing – and still keep the property.
This happens thousands of times a year across the country. But it will soon happen less often in Minnesota, which has taken a small but important step toward ending one of the most abusive law enforcement practices in the nation. It’s a step the federal and other state governments should take to protect citizens from abusive police and prosecutors and restore a fundamental principle of life in these United States: that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
States and local governments have stolen billions of dollars of property from people who have never been convicted of a crime or charged with one. They’ve done it under a practice called “civil forfeiture.” It’s an outgrowth of the nation’s “war on drugs,” which has been raging and failing since President Richard Nixon launched it more than 40 years ago.
Civil forfeiture defenders say it’s another way to get at criminals—usually drug users or sellers—while helping to fund law enforcement. Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors may seize property, sell it, and use the proceeds to pad their budgets. To get back their property, forfeiture victims must spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to sue. In many instances, the legal costs would exceed the value of the property.
Politicians eager to look tough on crime decided to structure civil forfeiture so police and prosecutors may take property on the mere suspicion it could be linked to a drug crime or certain other nefarious activities. Police and prosecutors don’t have to prove anything. All they have to do is claim they “suspect” the person losing the property might have been planning to use it in an illegal way or might have used or obtained it illegally. Their “suspicions” often are so flimsy no arrest or criminal charge is made. They just take the property.
The final straw for Minnesota legislators came after the Minneapolis Star-Tribune broke a scandal in the state’s Metro Gang Strike Force by reporting on the brutality of its raids and the apparent police thefts of cash and other property, including at least 13 seized cars that went “missing.” A state court later ordered $840,000 in seized property returned to forfeiture victims, and the strike force was disbanded.
Effective August 1, a bill signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton will require people in Minnesota to be convicted of a drug crime before their property can be seized through forfeiture.
Civil forfeiture for other reasons is still possible, but reining in property seizures under the pretext of drug activity is a good start.
Through civil forfeiture our local, state, and federal governments effectively declare we are presumed guilty until proven innocent. In other words, it is a system of tyranny by police and prosecutors. Americans should never accept tyranny, no matter what excuses people in government give for imposing it.
North Carolina is the only state with no civil forfeiture. Let us hope Minnesota and the rest of the states and the federal government get to where North Carolina is and ban all civil forfeitures.
Steve Stanek (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.