Asset forfeiture faces more scrutiny

FAIRMONT — Civil asset forfeiture laws have been making headlines across the country, and are being picked apart in many courtrooms.

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman who had her vehicle seized by police in a DUI-related incident. The court said current law deprived the woman of due process.

Opposition to asset forfeiture laws is growing, with opponents saying it allows legalized theft by the state.

Martin County Attorney Terry Viesselman discussed his experience with forfeiture laws.

“As prosecutors, we like the forfeiture laws,” he said. “The intent is that it’s a way to fight the drug trade by taking away their ill-gained assets, and make it more difficult for them to proceed in their drug activities.

“So what happens when we have a drug bust, some items of property can be seized at that time. It’s any assets which were used in furtherance of that drug activity.

“One common thing is conveyance devices, such as vehicles. If we get somebody with drugs in their car over $100 in value, the car can be seized in forfeit. Any money that they have that represents proceeds from the drug trade can also be seized, as well as things like jewels or anything with a monetary value.”

He explained the forfeiture procedure.

“One way you can do it is by summons and a complaint, which is just like a regular lawsuit asking the court to do an order forfeiting property,” he said. “Then there’s also a shorter, quicker way to do it called an administrative forfeiture. So instead of doing a summons and a complaint the officer, at the time of arrest, fills out a form that identifi\es their property and states that it will be forfeited in 30 days unless they go and file an action in court objecting to the forfeiture.”

Viesselman said people often do not object, but when they do they have the chance to produce receipts or check stubs to show their legal possession for large amounts of cash. In that case, money is given back and vehicles are returned if proper titles are produced.

Viesselman said there are forfeitures that can happen apart from the drug trade.

“That’s for DWIs, and that one is just forfeiting vehicles,” he noted. “The obvious reason for that is to take these vehicles away from people who are repeat offenders. That one is more restrictive and the person has to be convicted.”

But what happens to the funds procured through seizures and subsequent vehicle auctions?

“On the proceeds from DWIs, 70 percent goes to the law enforcement agency that had the arrest and 30 percent goes to the prosecuting attorney’s office,” Viesselman explained. “On the drug busts, 70 percent goes to law enforcement, 20 percent goes to the attorney, and 10 percent goes to the state to be deposited in the general fund.”

The drug forfeiture money cannot be distributed in salaries, so it goes toward the costs of law enforcement or the attorney’s office.

“That gives my office and law enforcement some incentive to do those, because it raises revenue,” Viesselman said. “For my office, it’s been years since I’ve ever asked the county board for any equipment here. We’ve used it on a TV, a recorder, two new desks, and all the computers have all been bought with drug forfeiture money.”

Viesselman said there have been proposals presented to the Minnesota Legislature that would change forfeiture procedure dramatically.

“One thing was that all the money would go the state or public defender’s office, but law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys wouldn’t get any,” he said. “Then they were also looking at having no vehicles being forfeited unless they had a value of over $2,500. The Sheriff’s Association and County Attorney’s Association opposed these bills.

“They also put in that you had to have convictions on drug cases. That would have made it more difficult because when we have first-time drug offenders and we have them plead guilty, they are sentenced but they get what’s called a stay of adjudication, which means if they complete their probation satisfactorily, then it goes off their record and doesn’t count as a conviction under the law. So then we wouldn’t be able to do drug forfeitures on almost all first-time offenders.”

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