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Minnesota cops take millions of dollars from people without criminal convictions

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Minnesota cops take millions of dollars from people without criminal convictions

Oct 06, 2023 | 7:46 am ET
By Christopher Ingraham
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Minnesota cops take millions of dollars from people without criminal convictions
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Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

In 2022 Minnesota law enforcement agencies seized and kept more than $3.1 million in cash, vehicles and other property from individuals who were not convicted of criminal wrongdoing. Hennepin County drug and anti-violence task forces are especially active in seizing property without convictions. 

It adds up to about one-third of the total 2022 asset forfeiture haul made by state agencies, with the remaining $6 million coming from cases in which convictions were obtained. The data come from the annual asset forfeiture report published by State Auditor Julie Blaha

This year, for the first time, the report included information on whether criminal convictions were associated with the seized goods, although details on the seizures remain opaque.

Civil liberties groups have long criticized the practice of asset forfeiture, which allows police to take property from people merely suspected of committing a crime. A criminal conviction is not required, and criminal charges often aren’t even filed. 

Because law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep a percentage of the assets they seize, critics say the practice creates a perverse profit motive that’s ripe for abuse.

The data show considerable variation in forfeiture practices among Minnesota agencies. Some departments reported convictions for every forfeiture they processed, while others obtained convictions for 20% or fewer of their cases.

Anti-drug and anti-violence task forces typically reported low rates of conviction on their forfeitures. Three of the 10 agencies with the lowest rates of conviction were task forces associated with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. They include the Southwest Hennepin Drug Task Force (6% of forfeitures accompanied by conviction); the Hennepin County Violent Offenders Task Force (20% conviction rate); and the West Metro Drug Task Force (20%). 

Convictionless forfeitures yielded the groups close to $400,000 in revenue in 2022.

In addition to forfeitures under state law, agencies can also pursue forfeitures under federal law. State agencies and task forces often partner with a federal agency — typically the Drug Enforcement Administration — to conduct investigations and seize property with suspected (but often not proven) links to the drug trade. State authorities are entitled to keep up to 80% of the proceeds from such investigations.

In 2022 Minnesota law enforcement agencies received $1.9 million in proceeds from joint federal investigations. The overwhelming majority of those funds — approximately $1.5 million — arose from investigations for which no criminal conviction was recorded in the data.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission Police Department, for instance, received $463,000 from convictionless forfeitures. All of that money came from seizures of cash. The State Patrol received $400,000 in cash, nearly all of which came from forfeitures with no accompanying criminal conviction.

Concern over the potential for abuse led the Minnesota Legislature to enact a number of forfeiture reforms in recent years, including limitations on the type of property that can be seized as well as stricter reporting requirements. But information about the circumstances of most forfeiture cases remains scant.

The data show, for instance, that in November 2022 the Pipestone County Sheriff’s Office completed forfeiture proceedings on $20 in cash that was suspected to be proceeds from the drug trade; a criminal conviction was never obtained. But there is no information on who the cash was seized from or what caused officers to suspect involvement with illegal activity.

Ditto for the $38 taken by the Lino Lakes Police Department in December, or the $59 taken by the Minnesota State Patrol in June, or the $98 seized by the Northwest Metro Drug Task Force in October, or hundreds of other small-dollar forfeitures reported in the database.

Defenders of the practice argue that forfeiture is a necessary tool to hamper the operations of drug cartels and other crime syndicates. Authorities struggle to obtain criminal convictions on these groups.

But the small-dollar amounts involved in many forfeiture cases suggest that officers are, at best, targeting low-level dealers rather than powerful kingpins. At worst, they may simply be seizing cash from people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Since there’s no way to know for sure, we just have to take their word for it.