As police reform continues to be a hot button issue, State Auditor Julie Blaha took to the Capitol this week to discuss the “big story in the small numbers” with legislators: forfeitures.

“In 2019, the average size of a forfeiture under $1,500 was $473,” Blaha said. “While having a minimal financial benefit to the public safety system, to a Minnesotan this could mean the difference between making rent and experiencing homelessness.”

Blaha argued at legislative hearings this week that forfeitures do not seem to be disrupting crime, but local law enforcement in Rice and Steele counties disagree with Blaha’s stance.

“Forfeitures impact the community more than the Police Department,” said Owatonna Police Capt. Eric Rethemeier. “When we make a vehicle seizure from a DWI or a drug offense, the seizing of the vehicle is a result of a threat to public safety. These are typically high-level DWIs or multi-time offenders and when we receive determinations on those cases we distribute the proceeds for DWI enforcement, training, or educational purposes.”

According to the most recent report from the state auditor, 94% of 2019 forfeitures in Minnesota were related to DWIs or controlled substance abuse. Vehicles accounted for 65% of property seized, while cash was 25%. Firearms can also be subject to forfeitures.

The Owatonna Police Department processed 19 motor vehicle forfeitures in 2019. However, only five of those transactions brought in net proceeds to the department, totaling just over $7,000. The Steele County Sheriff’s Office processed five vehicle forfeitures, keeping one to outfit for the new K-9 officer and handler/deputy and netting $13,000 from another. The other three vehicles did not produce any additional proceeds.

In Rice County, the Sheriff’s Office processed 12 motor vehicle forfeitures and one motorcycle forfeiture. Five were returned to the owner or lien holder, while the remaining eight brought in proceeds just over $20,000. The Northfield Police Department processed four vehicle forfeitures and saw net proceeds of just under $3,000, while Faribault Police saw net proceeds of $1,000 after processing five forfeitures.

Rethemeier said there is a misconception that forfeitures are policing for profit, but says that simply is not the case. Aside from the money that may be made following the auction of forfeiture vehicles going into public safety measures, Rethemeier said there is a strict set of guidelines and requirements law enforcement must follow to ensure the forfeiture is warranted and just.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, who has testified at the state Legislature regarding the forfeiture process in the past, said the intent of forfeitures is to stop the commission of criminal activity, but that isn’t possible if the process isn’t legitimate.

“We want to make sure we’re not depriving someone from their property if they are an innocent owner,” Bohlen said, adding that the forfeiture of vehicles tends to be the more controversial side of the debate. “You don’t get to just take someone’s property – you have to give them a receipt and a court date so they have the ability to argue it if it’s not fair, and sometimes the judge will say we have to give it back.”

In the proposed legislation, House File 75, sponsored by Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, efforts to protect an “innocent owner” during a forfeiture is one of the biggest pushes of the bill. The bill would allow an individual to bring an innocent owner claim by notifying the prosecuting authority in writing within 60 days of the service of the notice seizure, which would allow the authority to release the vehicle to that person. If the prosecuting authority proceeds with the forfeiture, they must file a separate complaint within 30 days.

While Bohlen said he understands the importance of protecting innocent owners, who he says are typically people who are unaware their vehicle is being used for criminal activity such as transporting drugs or driving while intoxicated, he believes the current checks and balances are already appropriate.

“The days of law enforcement just taking everything from watches to jewelry to jet skis has gone by the wayside,” said Bohlen, who has been in law enforcement for 31 years. “People knock forfeitures as policing for profit, that we try to take someone’s car and sell it on auction just to make some money, but the reality is we have a lot of forfeitures that are worth nothing and we actually have to pay to store it and eventually get rid of it.”

Both Bohlen and Rethemeier said that drug task force units typically see more forfeitures, especially of more expensive vehicles. Any money from forfeitures from those units are controlled by a board and allocated to pay for operations and equipment needs. Bohlen said some motor vehicle forfeitures by task forces may be used for undercover vehicles for agents as well.

“I think sometimes there is a misconception that those proceeds are used for wage increases, but that’s not the case,” Rethemeier said. “That money never supplements any budget items and most definitely isn’t used to increases wages for officers.”

Restricting the seizure of cash and property valued at less than $1,500 is also a crucial to HF 75, with Blaha saying that restricting small forfeitures will have “big benefits with little costs.” Though both local police departments largely see only motor vehicle forfeitures, it could still impact getting vehicles that are involved in intoxicated driving infractions off the road. Bohlen said it is not uncommon for those forfeitures to be worth only a couple hundred dollars.

“Those are the things we end up getting stuck with and have to bring to the salvage yard at some point,” Bohlen said. “But we are taking them because they are an instrument used to continue intoxicated (driving) and hurt the public, and often times it is a repeated issue.”

HF 75 would also restrict forfeitures for driving while impaired infractions, limiting it to first-degree only.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.