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Officers seized 43 vehicles in Douglas County last year

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Sheriff Troy Wolbersen2 / 3
Police Chief Rick Wyffels 3 / 3

Criminals who drive drunk or sell drugs not only risk spending time behind bars or paying fines.

They often forfeit their vehicles, cash and other property used in the commission of their crimes.

Last year, law enforcement agencies in Minnesota seized cash or property that netted more than $7.4 million — an 8 percent jump from the previous year, according to the annual Criminal Forfeitures Report recently released by State Auditor Rebecca Otto.

Under Minnesota law, property associated with designated criminal offenses may be forfeited. The report lists and summarizes forfeiture incidents after final disposition to provide transparency to the public and to inform lawmakers on the nature and frequency of property seized, according to Otto.

Once a vehicle is seized, it is either sold or returned to the owner or lienholder as part of an agreement that requires the criminal to compensate the agency.

The four law enforcement agencies in Douglas County — the sheriff's office, Alexandria and Osakis police departments, and the West Central Minnesota Drug and Violent Crime Task Force (which covers eight counties, including Douglas) — seized a combined total of 43 vehicles and $54,396 in cash in 2016.

Where does the money go?

Each forfeiture is divvied up between the agency that seized the property, the prosecuting attorney's office and the state.

"In effect, our proceeds go back to the Alexandria Police Department for drug and alcohol enforcement and training," Police Chief Rick Wyffels said.

"Part of it offsets our budget," said Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen. "We end up with a good portion of it but we also have to pay towing fees and transferring the title from the previous owners."

Both Wyffels and Wolbersen see a positive side to the forfeiture law.

"It's somewhat effective, especially when it comes to repeat offenders," Wolbersen said. "It's a deterrent that will hopefully make them think twice about driving drunk or committing drug crimes."

Wolbersen added that in the "drug world," dealers know about the forfeiture law and that their vehicles will be seized if they're caught. "The law has been around for a lot of years now and the word is out there," he said.

"I think the nature of the law makes some sense," Wyffels said. "When someone commits a crime, it's logical to take away the tools or equipment they used to commit the crime."

But Wyffels had some misgivings, too. Just because a repeat drunken driver loses his vehicle doesn't mean he won't drive drunk again, he said.

"In real life, he'll just go and find another vehicle or borrow one from a friend."

When a driver's vehicle is seized, the owner could end up losing their job and their livelihood, which Wyffels questioned was the right thing to do.

Confiscating vehicles also takes up staff time and expense, Wyffels added.

"There's a lot of work that goes with it — our clerical people have to keep track of everything; we have to put the vehicles in the storage lot. I sometimes think, 'Is it really worth it?'"

Douglas County forfeitures

The forfeiture report lists the following information for local law enforcement agencies:

Douglas County Sheriff's Office

Property seized: 18 vehicles, no cash.

Crimes committed: 17 drunk-driving offenses, one fleeing a peace officer.

Vehicles sold: 10.

Gross sales: $6,737.

Expenses and/or amount returned to owners: $4,045.

Net proceeds: $2,902.

Alexandria Police Department

Property seized: 19 vehicles and $888 in cash.

Crimes committed: 18 drunk-driving offenses, one fleeing a peace officer, three drug crimes.

Vehicles sold: 10.

Gross sales of vehicles, plus cash: $14,631.

Expenses and/or amount returned to owners: $2,294.

Net proceeds: $12,463.

Osakis Police Department

Property seized: one vehicle, no cash.

Crime committed: drunk-driving offense.

Vehicles sold: one.

Gross sales: $4,095.

Expenses and/or amount returned to owners: $1,000.

Net proceeds: $3,095.

West Central Minnesota Drug and Violent Crime Task Force (which covers seven counties, including Douglas)

Property seized: five vehicles and $53,508 in cash.

Crimes committed: all drug crimes.

Vehicles sold: four.

Gross sales of vehicles, plus cash: $60,459.

Expenses and/or amount returned to owners: $16,622.

Net proceeds: $43,837.

Highlights of state report

• In 2016, 320 Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported 7,048 completed forfeitures. This compares to 6,722 completed forfeitures in 2015.

• Of the 7,048 completed forfeitures reported, 4,380 involved seized cash, property that was sold, or an agreement that required compensation to the agency. The total value of net proceeds from these forfeitures was $7,426,740.

• In 2016, vehicles accounted for 59 percent of property seized, followed by cash at 28 percent, firearms at 11 percent, and other property at 1 percent.

• The most common criminal activities leading to seizure, forfeiture, and final disposition of property in 2016 were controlled substance and drunk driving-related, accounting for 94 percent of the forfeitures. Forfeitures involving a controlled substance accounted for 3,455, or 49 percent, of reported forfeitures, while drunk driving-related forfeitures accounted for 3,143, or 45 percent, of reported forfeitures.

Change is coming to forfeiture law

A new state law takes effect Aug. 1 that will protect an innocent owner of a vehicle when someone else, such as a spouse or family member, uses it without permission or knowledge.

Existing law allows the vehicle to be forfeited even if the owner was not the driver.

Gov. Mark Dayton said the new law provides fairness.

"This reform reflects the important balance between public safety and the rights of innocent vehicle owners," he said.

State Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, said she authored the bill because taking vehicles hurt others who needed transportation.

"For spouses or family members who did not know their vehicle would be used unlawfully, it is problematic for the state to confiscate it from them," O'Neill said. "This new law will give Minnesota citizens their right to a day in court to plead their case before a judge to have their property returned to them."

She said that at times, the seized vehicle could be the only available one for a family.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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