Civil asset forfeiture reform clears key Senate committee

On Tuesday, legislation to reform Minnesota’s asset forfeiture laws cleared a key Senate committee. The bill, designed to add clarity to the state’s patchwork of asset forfeiture laws, passed from the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee with bipartisan support.

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

Currently, Minnesota’s asset forfeiture laws vary, with separate sections for DWI law, game and fish law, and criminal law. Senate File 2155 repeals those laws and replaces them with a single statute governing asset forfeiture. The bill eliminates administrative forfeiture – an archaic process used to seize assets without a court order, requiring a property owner to file a lawsuit to retrieve their property, even if the property owner did not commit a crime.

“Think of a situation involving a car, where a bank is the lien holder or the car was used in criminal activity without the owner’s knowledge. Under current law, the property owner must sue the state to get their car back and must wait until criminal proceedings are over before the car can be returned to its rightful owner,” Senator Newman continued. “Due process for all citizens is a fundamental right – and this is a perfect example of due process being denied.”

The legislation requires a forfeiture action to be brought at the same time as a criminal charge and requires a conviction before carrying out the forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies are also barred from using federal forfeiture sharing programs to skirt state law and will be required to make dramatic changes to how seized property, or proceeds from that property, is treated once a forfeiture takes place. Finally, the bill ensures individuals subject to criminal forfeiture are afforded ample due process through additional opportunities for court hearings.

The bill was awaits a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.

Senator Scott Newman, of Hutchinson, is in his third term representing District 18, which includes communities in McLeod, Meeker, Sibley, and Wright counties. Senator Newman serves as chairman of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.

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