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Attempt to overhaul forfeiture laws fails

ST. PAUL — House lawmakers resoundingly rejected a push by Rochester Rep. Tina Liebling on Thursday to overhaul the state’s forfeiture laws.

The Democratic lawmaker introduced two amendments to another forfeiture bill. The first measure would prohibit law enforcement from forfeiting an individual’s property until he or she had been convicted of a crime. It would still allow police to seize property.

The second amendment would no longer allow law enforcement agencies to keep a portion of the proceeds from forfeited property. Instead, the money would go to the state to be used for public safety.

Liebling told lawmakers her proposals would preserve freedom and protect civil liberties.

"The forfeiture laws that we have in Minnesota right now cross over the line. They infringe on freedom in a most unfortunate and uncalled for and unnecessary way," she said.


The proposals come in the wake of last year’s Metro Gang Strike Task Force scandal. Investigators in the now-defunct task force were accused of forfeiting property and cash without reasonable justification and, in some cases, were accused of taking some of those items for personal use.

Critics argue that Liebling’s proposal went too far and would penalize all law enforcement officers for the behavior of some rogue cops. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said Liebling’s amendment would "put our people at risk while we protect drug addicts, thieves and murderers."

Liebling’s amendment to require a conviction for forfeiture failed by a vote of 111-20. Her second amendment to redirect forfeiture proceeds failed 110-20. Rochester Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, and Rep. Andy Welti, DFL-Plainview, both supported Liebling’s second amendment.

The forfeiture debate grew particularly heated in Rochester two months ago when Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson testified at the Capitol in favor of Liebling’s bill. Law enforcement agencies and some Rochester police officers said the chief’s comments implied local police are engaged in corrupt behavior when it comes to forfeiting property.

Peterson apologized for offending his officers but emphasized he was not suggesting there is a problem in Rochester. Rather, he said, it makes sense to get rid of the inherent conflict of interest that exists when law enforcement benefits from forfeited property.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem and Sheriff Steven Von Wald opposed Liebling’s forfeiture changes, along with the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the Minnesota Sheriffs Association.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, who is also the Lake Crystal police chief, said his officers searched a man and found more than $1,000 in rolled-up cash in one pocket and drugs in the other. The man claimed he had just gotten paid. Officers could not disprove that, and they returned his money.

"Cops aren’t out there carte blanche taking money away from innocent people," Cornish said.


Liebling’s proposals did have the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and a Libertarian organization called the Institute for Justice.

The number of forfeitures has risen dramatically during the past decade, climbing from 1,000 in 2001 to nearly 4,000 in 2008.

Law enforcement agencies receive 70 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property; 20 percent goes to the prosecuting attorney, and 10 percent goes to the state.

Liebling said she will renew her proposal in the next legislative session.

"This is government run amok," she said. "We are allowing there to be a financial incentive to take people’s property, and that is fundamentally wrong."

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