The bill would make many changes, including limiting the types of property subject to forfeiture under the controlled substances provisions.
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HF 4571 (Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul), a compromise bill that seeks to reform the current civil asset forfeiture system, was unanimously passed by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on April 29.
The committee adopted technical amendments before sending it on to the House State Government Finance Committee.
To progress the bill faster due to the limited time remaining in the legislative session, the forfeiture reform bill replaced the original language in HF 1236 (Rep. Lesch), which was the bill on the law-enforcement use of drones. This amended bill was heard and passed by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division on April 30 and referred to the House Ways & Means Committee.
The House State Government Finance Committee will hear this bill on May 5.
There is currently no Senate companion to HF 4571, but the Senate Judiciary Committee did hear a previous version of the forfeiture reform bill (SF 2155) in 2019.
Specifics of the bill
The bill proposes many changes, including:
- Limiting the types of offenses that can result in a DWI forfeiture.
- Limiting the types of property subject to forfeiture under the controlled substances provisions.
- Establishing a process for an individual to present an innocent owner claim.
- Reducing the burden on individuals claiming to be innocent owners.
- Requiring law enforcement agencies and prosecuting authorities to report on each forfeiture.
- Requiring law enforcement agencies and prosecuting authorities to report on the use of money obtained through forfeiture.
- Directing the Office of the State Auditor to conduct a study on the efficacy of both forfeiture and the ignition interlock program on reducing recidivism in DWI offenders.
Support for the bill
State Public Defender Bill Ward and Minnesota County Attorneys Association Executive Director Bob Smalls testified in favor of the bill. They shared that the bill was a result of many meetings held before the legislative session, and represents a compromise by the stakeholders.
- Law Enforcement Letter in Support (Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Minneapolis Peace and Police Officers Association, and Minnesota Sheriffs Association)
- Forfeiture Reform Advocates Letter in Support (State of Minnesota Board of Public Defense, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, and Justice Action Network)
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nora Sandstad and Howard Bass of ACLU-Minnesota provided an overview of the bill, reminding the committee that the purpose of forfeiture is to deter crime and that the bill provides protection of individual rights.
Opposition to the bill
Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA). MCPA had concerns with:
- DWI proposed changes, including:
- A 50% decrease in DWI forfeitures, particularly concerns with impact on license cancellation as inimical to public safety or no-use restriction.
- Two-week storage paid by law enforcement, suggesting one week instead.
- No certainty that ignition interlock participants would complete the program, even though they get their vehicle back.
- Proposed drug-related changes, indicating that a $1,500 cash threshold is too high.
However, MCPA supported other aspects of the bill, including the recidivism study, the innocent owner protections, and reporting requirements.
Background on forfeiture reform bills
Forfeiture reform is an issue that has been brought up at the state Capitol for many years. Previous versions have abolished civil forfeiture altogether, leaving only criminal forfeiture.
Before the 2020 legislative session, stakeholders engaged in a novel process where a mediator was engaged. Through this process, law enforcement representatives and forfeiture reform advocates came up with the compromise language that was discussed in the House committee hearings.