Minnesota police are seizing cars from innocent people, selling the cars and keeping the proceeds under a wildly permissive civil forfeiture law supported by, you guessed it, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Minneapolis ABC-affiliate KSTP spoke to Emma Dietrich, whose fully paid-off 2013 Chevrolet Camaro was seized when a State Patrol officer pulled over a co-worker driving her home in the Camaro. What she didn’t know was that the co-worker had a driving-while-intoxicated charge on his record. When he refused a breathalyzer test, police seized the vehicle and arrested the driver, leaving Dietrich in a lurch for seven months:
Police have often stated the goal of those seizures is to stop repeat offenders from driving, but 5 INVESTIGATES found vehicles are also taken from owners like Dietrich who have never been charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI).
She says the State Patrol told her she was still being held responsible for her coworker’s actions.
“That the right thing to do was to have a complete history of his driving infractions and to also give him a sobriety test. That is what they said I should have done,” Dietrich said.
KSTP found that judges in Minnesota have ordered law enforcement to return vehicles over 600 times in the last three years. Police declined KSTP’s requests for interviews but the State Patrol released a statement saying nothing makes a community safer like forcing innocent people to buy back their own cars. And besides, the Patrol is just following the letter of the law:
The Minnesota Police Chiefs Association declined interview requests from 5 INVESTIGATES, as did State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer, and Assistant Public Safety Commissioner Booker Hodges who oversees State Patrol.
In a statement, Langer said State Patrol is “committed to enforcing DWI laws” which include vehicle forfeiture “for the most serious DWI violations and repeat offenders.”
But Langer did not address questions about Emma Dietrich’s case or innocent owners, so 5 INVESTIGATES approached State Patrol spokesperson Lt. Gordon Shank at a recent event.
“We follow state statutes as they’re written, and we operate under our current policies,” Shank said.
It turns out, Minnesota’s lawmakers have been trying to change that law. Despite bipartisan support for an update to the law and multiple attempts by lawmakers, so far efforts have been futile. One lawmaker’s repeated attempts at revising legislation protecting innocent citizens’ property has been thwarted, he says, by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association:
State Representative John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul has repeatedly authored bills to try to reform asset forfeiture in Minnesota.
Lawmakers again expressed interest in changing the law during a remote meeting of the House Judiciary Committee just this month, but so far, all efforts have failed.
Despite bipartisan support for a compromise that would have added protections for “innocent owners,” Lesch and others blame opposition from the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association for killing his latest bill earlier this year.
“When you’re taking vehicles from innocent owners… you’re not making anyone safer, you’re just lining your pockets,” Lesch said. “It’s not the right way to fund law enforcement… even law enforcement knows that.”
After her co-worker’s trial was delayed due to COVID-19, Dietrich eventually gave in and bought back her own car for $4,000, a price she had to negotiate with the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. To add insult to injury she now must drive with what is known as whiskey plates, different colored license plates that announce to the world that the driver has had a DWI, despite the fact she has never be charged with that crime.
Civil forfeiture is some deeply heinous bullshit. It allows police to charge an object with a crime, say a pile of cash or a car, rather than a person, and seize that object. It’s often incredibly hard for the original owner to reclaim their property. The US Supreme Court even ruled against a particularly stringent civil forfeiture law in Indiana last year in the case of a man whose 2012 Land Rover LR2 was seized for selling $400 worth of heroin to undercover cops, according to USA Today.