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Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

Est. 2014

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Olmsted County sheriff says civil forfeiture bill would handcuff his department

Olmsted County sheriff says civil forfeiture bill would handcuff his department

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials are at odds over a rewrite of civil forfeiture laws now making its way through the Minneosta Legislature.

The legislation would replace the state’s existing civil forfeiture law with provisions limiting government seizures of money or property to criminal cases, and then only after convictions are made. Companion bills in the House and Senate have garnered support from both sides of the aisle.

Advocates for the legislation, like Rep. Tina Liebling, a Democrat from Rochester, argue that the current law creates incentives for law enforcement to seize assets as a way of boosting their budgets.

“One of the most egregious features of current forfeiture law is that law enforcement get a cut of the money they take from people they accuse of crimes,” said Rep. Liebling, a co-author of the House bill.

“Even if they are not abusing this,” she added, “the fact that these agencies get even some of their funding by seizing cash and property from individuals is deeply disturbing and undermines public trust.”

Law enforcement groups, though, are pushing back against the legislation, arguing that the measures would take away their ability to used seized funds for the common good. They argue that Minnesota already has extensive limitations that ensure the funds are used for appropriate expenditures — like disrupting a growing drug pipeline that is pumping more and more methamphetamine and heroin into the state.

“The authors and supporters of these bills clearly are in favor of more drugs, mental health, social issues, homelessness and addiction rather than holding the people accountable for profiting from creating and sustaining these social challenges,” said Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson.

In a recent post on Facebook, the sheriff made clear the issue of civil forfeitures was one his office is paying close attention to. He said the bills making their way through the Legislature “WILL limit the ability for law enforcement and prosecutors and WILL benefit criminals.”

“The question I ask is what kind of community do you want? One where criminals run free and profit, don't pay taxes and tear our communities and families apart one by one,” he wrote, “or a community where law enforcement and prosecutors have every tool they can use to combat the daily battle illegal drugs create.”

Asked to respond to Torgerson’s statements, Liebling said she can understand agencies wanting to defend their budgets. However, she questioned whether the sheriff was offering his “independent, professional opinion on the matter, or trying to preserve his agency's ability to keep making money by grabbing it from citizens?”

She called the sheriff’s allegations about lawmakers being in favor of drugs, homelessness, etc. “a cheap shot that further illustrates the point.”

There are about 6,000 recorded civil asset forfeiture incidents in Minnesota each year, with total annual proceeds around $6 million.

Under the existing law, authorities can take property from suspects without a court order. Those individuals then have to file a suit to retrieve their belongings, even in cases where they were not charged with a crime.

The measures proposed in the Legislature would instead require a a forfeiture action to be brought at the same time as a criminal charge, and requires a conviction before carrying out the forfeiture.

The legislation here — which has the support from both progressive groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Americans for Prosperity — follows a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found the Constitution’s ban on imposing excessive fines also applies to states.

“For decades, asset forfeiture has been used as a means of punishing criminals by taking the proceeds of illegal criminal activity,” said Republican State Sen. Scott Newman, the bill’s author. “Unfortunately, that can come at the cost of an innocent property owner’s right to due process. It is time for significant reform to Minnesota’s asset forfeiture laws.”

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