The difference between losing your vehicle, or keeping it, in an asset forfeiture can be as simple as where you live.
According to a 2020 report from the Office of the Minnesota State Auditor, administrative asset forfeitures due to criminal cases in Becker and Otter Tail counties can end vastly differently for the property owners. Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha said most forfeitures in Minnesota fall under $1,500 in value and are considered small forfeitures. The average forfeiture in the state is between $400 to $500, she said.
"You're seeing that small forfeitures have a pretty small effect on the system, they have a pretty small effect on crime prevention, but they can have a huge and disproportionate effect on an individual," said Blaha. "For somebody who is in poverty, losing $400 to $500 can be the difference in making rent, or losing their car and not being able to get to work."
Blaha added removing the instrument of a crime makes sense, since a large number of seizures are for drunken driving offenses and controlled substances, but the punishment should not push an individual to homelessness, or joblessness.
For comparison, the number of asset forfeitures beginning as seizures in each county's sheriff's office due to various criminal offenses have been similar since 2016. While the sheriff's offices don't represent their counties as a whole, a majority of the property seized from owners by the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office was eventually returned through prosecutor agreements after administrative charges were assessed, while a majority of the seized property by the Becker County Sheriff's Office was sold at auction. The net proceeds from these agreements and sales can then be absorbed into the arresting agency's budget.
"You hear a concern about policing-for-profit, the idea that you can have a perverse incentive to forfeit to try to fill out a stressed budget … however, when we take a look at the total amount of forfeiture it's about 0.4% of statewide public safety money," said Blaha. "I think law enforcement definitely can agree that a lot of times small forfeiture is more trouble than benefit."
In 2020, the Becker County Sheriff's Office participated in 28 administrative forfeitures, including 16 vehicles, which led to $8,696 in net proceeds after administrative costs. A majority of their proceeds for the year came from three cash forfeitures totaling $5,143; however, the remaining cash seizures for the year were between $10 and $361.
Comparatively, the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office, during the same time period, participated in 27 forfeitures, including 26 vehicles, which led to $6,215 in net proceeds after administrative costs.
The major difference is in Otter Tail County. All, except for five, forfeitures were returned to the owner through an agreement with the prosecutor and court. Whereas in Becker County, all of the forfeitures were kept and sold, with no forfeited property being returned to the owners.
"We go through a process, it's an administrative process, but we also work with the county attorney's office … and if it's something that we agree should continue with the process, we'll do that. Otherwise, if they see it as something that should be returned, that decision is made with the help of them," said Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander. "(Forfeited proceeds) are restricted funds that are only to be used for certain things."
For example, Glander said, they had seized a vehicle in a DWI case and, with county board approval, the county paid the remainder of the loan for the vehicle and the sheriff drove the vehicle as a patrol vehicle for a few years, which saved the county about $20,000 in ordering a new cruiser. He added, after he was done driving it, the vehicle was transferred to the boat and water division, where it is still in use.
He said law enforcement doesn't want the offender to keep offending, which is one of the main arguments for the use of forfeitures.
"We know how hard people work for their property and we don't take pride in doing those seizures and forfeitures, but we follow the statute that's in front of us and our goal is to stop this activity from happening," said Glander.
He also added that each case is different and keeping a level of local discretion with officers, deputies and county attorneys is important to the case-by-case nature of law enforcement.
Sarah Estep, assistant county attorney for Otter Tail County, said county attorneys are the ones who have the last word on whether a piece of property is forfeited, or not, but they do seek recommendations from the seizing agency, which may lead to different results even within the same county.
"Different departments can have different stances on returns, or not returns, buybacks, or not," said Estep.
Some counties have a minimum threshold for vehicle value that weighs on whether a vehicle is sold at auction, or returned to the owner, she said. Otter Tail County doesn't have that threshold requirement, but they do look at the vehicle value to see if it is worth their time and resources to try to sell it.
"If there is a lot of controlled substances that are found, and then you find the book list of sales and buys, then you have all of this cash that goes with it, is it a double whammy that you've now lost the proceeds of your illegal behavior?" she said. "That's the seizing of funding that was obtained through illegal means and that's harmful to the community."
The Minnesota Legislature passed a new asset forfeiture law in last year's session that will go into effect on Jan. 1. The features of the new law include:
- An "innocent owners" provision, which allows protection for vehicle owners not involved directly with a crime, but whose vehicle was used in a crime, like DWI.
- Vehicle forfeiture exceptions for installing an ignition interlock system, or participation in alcohol or drug dependence courses.
- Cash forfeitures must be more than $1,500, unless there is probable cause to believe it was exchanged for the purchase of a controlled substance. Additionally, all money found in proximity to controlled substances can be subject to forfeiture.
- A transparency requirement for law enforcement agencies, which will require agencies to disclose how forfeiture proceeds were used.
- A new recidivism study to report the efficacy of forfeiture and ignition interlock systems in DUI cases. The legislative auditor's report will be due to the state legislature by Jan. 15, 2025.
Blaha said forfeiture laws should be bipartisan because conservatives don't condone government seizures, in general, and progressives believe forfeitures disproportionally impact minorities and people living paycheck-to-paycheck.
"Not only is this important in people's regular lives … but also, I think it should also give us hope because no matter how divisive things seem, there are places we can work together and we can't give up on that," she said. "These places exist and we need to keep looking for them."