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EDITORIAL: Putting a stop to civil asset-forfeiture abuse

Minnesota applies constitutional protections in seizure of property

- - Friday, May 16, 2014

When cops can help themselves to cash, cars, boats and houses of citizens who have never been charged with a crime, the system is badly broken. Minnesota has become one of the handful of states to do something to fix it.

The sight of a lawman in the rear-view mirror can be a reassuring sight, but good feeling sometimes becomes one of dread. The flashing blue and red lights often are a warning of a different kind of highway robbery.

Under the surreal doctrine of civil forfeiture, law enforcement agents can set aside constitutional protections and simply seize property under the assertion that the property is probably related to some kind of criminal activity. This is often an irresistible temptation, and the state gets away with it by laying charges against inanimate objects, which have no rights, instead of people, who do. This reverses the presumption of innocence, allowing money, cars, and even the occasional motel to become the constable's property without a judge finding the actual owner guilty of anything. It's up to the owner to prove the cops wrong, and if there's any doubt, the government wins. The system is rigged to favor those who are corrupt.

The federal government is in on the game, too. When items are seized under the federal authority, the federales get to keep 20 percent with the local cops getting the rest. In many states, the local share flows directly into the agency's budget, creating a powerful and perverse profit motive. Each seizure holds the promise of upgraded squad cars and other benefits for the officers. The reassuring slogan of "serve and protect" has been replaced by "stop and collect."

Minnesota's civil forfeiture program was once one of the most abusive. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, the state's forfeiture revenue grew 75 percent between 2003 and 2010, as law enforcement helped itself to $30 million in more or less legal loot.

The state's Metro Gang Strike Force drew headlines for the brutality of its raids. The state auditor counted 13 seized cars that went "missing" — along with thousands in cash — as dirty cops helped themselves to the goods. The good times came to an end when a court ordered $840,000 in seized property returned to victims.

The Minnesota legislature took the point, too, and under a new state law, effective in August, civil forfeiture can now occur only after conviction for a crime. Wyoming is considering a similar reform, with one proposal raising the bar by requiring "clear and convincing evidence" to justify seizure.

These developments are encouraging, and overdue, as civil forfeiture is a dangerous and evil doctrine. Reform is needed both at the state and federal level so that police officers do their jobs as public servants, not as tax collectors for the welfare state.