This article was first published by The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Monday, May 19, 2014:
Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, a million liberals and Hubert Humphrey. And yet, something remarkable happened on Tuesday, May 6: the legislature passed a bill prohibiting the police from stealing from its citizens!
On the Richter Scale (i.e., the Freedom Index published by the John Birch Society) Minnesota Senators Al Franken and Amy Kloucher each rank in single digits in following the Constitution: 7 out of a possible perfect score of 100. Three of the state’s eight representatives score below 25, and not one ranks higher than 80. And yet…
The state’s civil asset forfeiture (let’s use the more accurate term: confiscation) law has allowed police in the state to confiscate any property or cash that it deems, in its own opinion, in any way to be related to a crime. The owner doesn’t have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one. Further, 90 percent of the proceeds thus “liberated” from their owners may be kept by the police. As George H. W. Bush gloated:
Asset forfeiture laws allow [the police] to take the alleged ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins and use them to put more cops on the streets.
Today, of course, everyone is now likely to be guilty of something – see Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by Harvey Silverglate – and the police are having a field day chasing down innocents and taking their property and cash, without recourse. In Minnesota, however, the party ends on August 1st when the mods under SF 874 kick in, forcing the police to have to obtain a criminal conviction first.
This delighted Lee McGrath, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Institute for Justice (IJ), which pushed for passage of the bill:
No one acquitted in criminal court should lose his property in civil court.
This change makes Minnesota’s law consistent with the great American presumption that a person and his property are innocent until proven guilty.
Until August 1, the game remains the same: the slightest suspicion can net a haul, without going through the niceties of a search warrant signed off on by a disinterested (and hopefully honest) judge. Until then, Minnesota still scores a “D” on the IJ’s report card, “Policing for Profit” because, in the land of liberals and lakes:
The owner is presumed guilty, bearing the burden of showing that he is the innocent owner.
Law enforcement receives as much as 90 percent of the value of the forfeited property, thus providing a profit incentive to law enforcement to focus on civil forfeitures instead of other law enforcement duties….
In some instances, officers have been alleged to keep the property [stolen] for their own personal use.
The difference between criminal forfeiture and civil confiscation is significant. Under criminal law, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. There’s an arrest, a charge, a trial, a conviction if guilty, and then – and only then – can property be forfeit. Under civil law, the rules are vastly looser. Here’s IJ:
Forfeiture is the government power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture – used to take the ill-gotten gains of criminal activity after a criminal conviction – with civil forfeiture, police can take property without so much as charging the owner with any wrongdoing.
Owners caught up in civil forfeiture proceedings typically have few legal rights, while police and prosecutors enjoy all the advantages.
Thirty-seven states have loose civil asset confiscation laws, and their citizens have been targets of police for years, if not decades. For instance, Tan Nguyen was driving home from Las Vegas, Nevada, with about $50,000 in cash which he had won during his visits to several casinos. He was pulled over for driving three miles an hour over the speed limit. The officer searched his car and found the cash, which he confiscated. When Nguyen protested, the officer Lee Dove threatened to seize his car and have it towed away, leaving him stranded in the Nevada desert unless he “got in his car and drove off and forgot that this ever happened.” It was a daylight highway robbery, and Nguyen sued.
Last week, Humboldt County, Nevada, was forced to return his winnings, along with enough to cover his legal fees. But it took a lawsuit to get his money back. As IJ noted, the “law enforcement” officer, Lee Dove, is allowed under state law to
Seize property under a legal standard lower than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard used in criminal convictions.
In its report card, IJ also gave Nevada a “D.” Nothing was said about any sanctions being brought against the officer, who, no doubt, is out continuing to play the slots on Nevada highways, hoping to strike it rich by confiscating cash from innocents unwilling to challenge his robberies.
These daylight highway robberies aren’t limited just to Minnesota or Nevada. In Virginia, Victor Luis Guzman was stopped for speeding on I-95 and had $28,500 stolen from him. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t even his money – it was donations made by members of his church that he was transporting. He had to sue to get the money back.
Some parts of I-95 are so notorious that they are known as “forfeiture corridors,” including Volusia County, Florida, where officer Bob Vogel had winnings of more than $6.5 million before he was stopped. In Camden County, Florida, officer Bill Smith has been playing the slots for two decades, raking in more than $20 million in cash and property from innocent drivers before he was exposed. He’d spent some of his winnings on a new $90,000 Dodge Viper and on a “party house” (imagination helpful here) for his friends.
The most outrageous example, however, is the recent case in Massachusetts where the DEA tried to confiscate a motel where some drug deals went down, claiming that the property “facilitated” the deals. The owners of the Motel Caswell, owned by Russell and Pat Caswell, noted that over the past 18 years they have rented out more than 125,000 rooms, while fewer than 15 incidents involving drug deals took place. They always cooperated with the police, but the DEA was unmoved and seized the place.
Or tried to. Enter IJ, which sued the DEA, which was forced to back off by the District Court:
The resolution of the crime problem [in Tewksbury] should not be simply to take [the Caswell’s] property.
This tiny Minnesota victory in a notoriously liberal state is indicative of just how far the freedom fight has come, and how successful it has been. When the land of a million liberals and Hubert Humphrey decided that the police have gone too far, it’s historic.
May the same medicine now be applied in Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and Massachusetts.
Report from IJ: Inequitable Justice
The New American: Officials Confiscate Cash and Property — for No Reason
IJ: A Stacked Deck
Amazon: Three Felonies a Day