If you’re caught driving drunk or selling drugs, you could end up with more than a jail sentence or a fine.
You could lose your vehicle.
Under Minnesota’s forfeiture laws, law enforcement can seize vehicles, cash and property related to DWI, controlled-substances and other crimes, such as assaults and fleeing a police officer.
Last year, the Alexandria Police Department seized a total of seven vehicles and $4,108 in cash, according to State Auditor Julie Blaha’s 2019 Asset Forfeiture Report released Sept. 2. The report is supposed to provide accountability and transparency for the forfeiture system.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office seized another 33 vehicles and $1,956 in cash. The office uses the proceeds to offset its budget, which reduces the use of taxpayer dollars, said Sheriff Troy Wolbersen.
Forfeitures related to drug crimes primarily go to the West Central Minnesota Drug Task Force, Wolbersen added. “Those proceeds are used to offset costs of operation and are also held in reserve to help pay operational costs if needed in the future,” he said.
For the Alexandria Police Department, the money goes toward law enforcement training and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program.
“The money comes back to help counteract these kinds of activities,” said Alexandria Police Captain Scott Kent.
Kent said the money the police department gets from forfeited property has been decreasing because of new laws and the difficulty of proving who owns the vehicle or property and if it was used in the commission of a crime.
Wolbersen and Kent both have lukewarm feelings about the forfeiture laws.
Wolbersen said the money and property obtained through illegal activity should be subject to forfeiture and he believes the laws may have some deterrent effect. “But I also know that criminals have found ways around the laws to protect their assets from seizure,” he added.
Kent said he doesn’t believe forfeiture laws are a big deterrent in stopping drug crimes and drunk driving. “A lot of people we’ve arrested have been arrested multiple times,” he said. “So in those cases, it wasn’t a deterrent.”
Statewide, drunk driving crimes are up, which also indicates forfeiture laws aren’t stopping impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel, Kent said.
Kent was quick to point out that law enforcement’s view of the forfeiture laws’ effectiveness ultimately doesn’t matter. “We’re following the law – we didn’t create it,” he said.
Wolbersen said criminals shouldn’t be allowed to profit from the pain their crimes leave on victims of assaults, theft, fraud and other crimes.
“It is a slap in the face to the victims of these crimes if we allow criminals to keep property and money gained by victimizing them,” he said. “The illegal sales of drugs are not victimless crimes. Anyone familiar with the drug trade knows that is true. Many of the victims of illegal drug sales will not come forward because of fear, addiction or relationship with the drug dealers.”
Regarding drunk-driving forfeitures of vehicles, Wolbersen said the intent is to prevent habitual offenders from continuing to drive while intoxicated. “It is effective, even if only temporarily,” he said. “These forfeited vehicles generally are not worth a lot of money so forfeiting DWI habitual offenders’ vehicles is not for profit, it is for prevention.”
The numbers in the forfeiture report don’t provide a complete picture, Kent said. Sometimes the department won’t sell a vehicle that was seized for at least a year, which can skew the annual numbers, he said.
Also, when the police sell a vehicle at a car auction, they can actually lose money because they don’t get enough money to pay the towing bill, Kent said.
“There’s more to it than the numbers on a spreadsheet,” he said.
Many of the vehicles the Alexandria police seized were old and in poor condition. Last year, for instance, one vehicle was a 1994 Eldorado, five came out in 2001 and the newest one was a 2009 Tahoe.
Sixteen of the 33 vehicles the sheriff’s office seized were at least 20 years old. The newest model was a 2008 Harley-Davidson.
State auditor’s comments
State Auditor Blaha said the data shows that when it comes to the impact of forfeitures, the big story is in the small numbers.
“The majority of forfeitures are of cash and property that nets less than $1,500,” Blaha said in a news release. “Those kinds of amounts have a small impact on government systems, but they have a big impact at the individual level.”
Blaha continued, “If you are managing a public safety budget, small forfeitures are a minor and unpredictable part of your revenue stream. But if you are a low income person experiencing a forfeiture, those amounts can have a big effect on your life. Having a few hundred dollars seized can mean the difference between making rent or homelessness. Losing that old car can lead to missing work and losing your job.”
Forfeiture reform efforts in the Legislature this past session considered restricting forfeitures smaller than $1,500, Blaha said.
“The total net value of forfeitures under $1,500 in Minnesota in 2019 was approximately $1.5 million. On a system level, a change that size is manageable. On an individual level, those changes could make a big impact. Future legislatures would be wise to continue those discussions.”
Other major trends in the data have been relatively consistent over the past five years. While the number of completed forfeitures decreased between 2018 and 2019, there was an increase of 15% in reported forfeitures over the past five years.
This year’s report shows that in Minnesota, the most common criminal activities leading to asset forfeiture were driving under the influence and controlled substance-related, accounting for 94% of the reported forfeitures. Over the last five years, the total number of DWI and controlled substance related forfeitures increased 21% and 13% respectively.
Other highlights of the report, according to Blaha, include:
In 2019, 317 Minnesota law enforcement agencies reported a total of 7,708 completed forfeitures. This compares to 8,091 completed forfeitures in 2018.
Of the 7,708 completed forfeitures reported in 2019, 4,351 involved seized cash, property that was sold, or an agreement that required monetary compensation to the agency. The total value of net proceeds from these forfeitures was $7,525,857.
In 2019, gross sales of forfeited property or seized cash totaled $10,487,082; administrative expenses, and lien holders’ obligations totaled $1,949,184; amount returned totaled $1,277,462; and net proceeds totaled $ 7,525,857.
The agencies with 100 or more completed forfeitures in 2019 were: the Minnesota State Patrol (1,383); Southeast Minnesota Narcotics and Gang Task Force (211); Wright County Sheriff’s Office (190); Minneapolis Police Department (185); CEE-VI Drug Task Force (166); Dakota County Drug Task Force (155); Bloomington Police Department (134); Saint Paul Police Department (134); Rochester Police Department (114); and Blaine Police Department (109).
In 2019, vehicles accounted for 65% of property seized, followed by cash at 25%, firearms at 9%, and other property at 1%.
The most common criminal activities leading to seizure, forfeiture, and final disposition of property in 2019 were DWI-related and controlled substance crimes, accounting for 94% of the forfeitures. DWI‑related forfeitures accounted for 3,654, or 47%, of reported forfeitures, while forfeitures involving a controlled substance accounted for 3,611, or 47%, of reported forfeitures. The remaining forfeitures involved fleeing (251), prostitution (69), “other” crimes (36), weapons (31), robbery/theft (23), assault (20), and burglary (13).
For 2019, 134 agencies reported that they did not process any property under the forfeiture statutes, compared to 138 in 2018.
To view the complete report go to: