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Harry's Gang: Forfeiture laws squeeze those who have little left


September 11, 2020

Criminals should not benefit from their crimes. If a jewel thief is arrested with the stolen diamonds, he shouldn’t be able to keep the jewels. That’s just crazy, right?

On the other hand, a drunk driver should not forfeit her car to the government when she is caught. Fined, jailed, ordered to get treatment — yes. But it’s not just or equitable that she should lose personal property too.

But that is allowed in Minnesota. Under Minnesota’s forfeiture laws, the police can seize your vehicle and keep it if you are charged with a certain level of drunk driving. They get to store your car while the criminal case runs its course, and if you are found guilty, they keep it. But even if you are found not guilty, you still have to pay for the cost of storage in order to get your car back. In drug cases, and under federal laws, the authorities can keep your personal property even if you are never convicted or even charged with a crime.

I’ve seen many examples of this in my law practice. Once, a client took his inheritance and bought a small truck. He then went up the North Shore to mourn his father, which included, foolishly, drinking way too much while meditating at Lake Superior. He wasn’t even driving, but was arrested for being “in physical control” of the vehicle because he was in a remote area, intoxicated, and could have, without too much trouble, gotten into his car and driven it. He had the keys in his pocket, but that really didn’t matter much. The charges were that he “could have” easily driven his car drunk. It was his third DWI within 10 years, and they seized his truck, which he owned free and clear.

Now, in that case, it was likely that he was going to drive his truck intoxicated. He had a motel room nearby, it was getting dark, and he had no other way to get back to his room. So, I can understand why the deputy felt it was necessary to prevent him from driving drunk. But when they found out that his truck was worth $20,000, they eagerly filed the paperwork to seize it and keep it.

Now, if there had been a loan on the truck, the sheriff’s department would have been required to pay off the loan before it could keep the truck. And most people I know have loans on their cars that often exceed the value of the vehicle. In those cases, the police will frequently not even bother to try to keep the vehicle. After all, why put all that effort into keeping the seized car if they have to pay off the loan in order to keep it?

But I think that example shows why forfeiture is not designed to keep drunk drivers off the road, as they say it is. It’s designed to enrich government coffers and gives an incentive to law enforcement to seize valuable property. If the goal were truly to keep drunk drivers off the road, the cops would keep the car and sell it to pay off the loan, even if it’s not financially feasible to do so. Law enforcement is not meant to be profitable.

And a recent study I read shows that lower-income people are disproportionately affected by forfeiture laws. Why? Because they are more likely to have inexpensive vehicles that have no loans on them. Some poor guy, making minimum wage driving a $1,500 beater, will lose his car after multiple DWIs, but a middle-class person with a $15,000 Chevy with a loan balance of $14,000 gets to keep his truck. It’s not fair.

Often, when I point out inequities in the criminal laws, I hear from my law-and-order friends who accuse me of being soft on crime. Maybe that’s true. But our criminal justice system is based on treating all citizens equally, and that the punishment should fit the crime. Civil forfeiture fails on both counts. The government has no business seizing your personal property in a criminal case. And while our courts have consistently determined that forfeiture in not an additional criminal penalty, I cannot agree: forfeiture amounts to an unconstitutional double jeopardy, where some pay twice for the same crime. It’s got to stop.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who will host the talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7 again soon. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected]


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