Justice groups: Ruling protects property rights
MINNEAPOLIS — In a decision that civil rights groups said would protect property owners' rights, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that evidence obtained during illegal searches cannot be used to take someone's property through the civil forfeiture process.
The ruling comes in the case of a man whose vehicle and money were seized by Plymouth police after they found drugs during a 2012 traffic stop. During the civil forfeiture process in state court, a judge said the stop was illegal. The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the man has standing to challenge the civil forfeiture and sent the case back to the Minnesota Court of Appeals to resolve a host of legal issues.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office is considering its options, which include arguing before the appeals court or appealing the entire case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Civil forfeiture is a legal process that gives law enforcement power to take property allegedly connected to a crime. Until recently in Minnesota, authorities could use civil forfeiture even if a person was not convicted of wrongdoing. It's different from a criminal forfeiture, where authorities can claim cash or property obtained through illegal activity only after someone is convicted.
In reaching their decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court justices found the Fourth Amendment — which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures — applies to civil forfeitures just as it does to criminal forfeitures. That echoes a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which the justices said is still good case law.
Attorneys on both sides said the case at issue here is complex.
After the initial traffic stop, Daniel Garcia-Mendoza was indicted on drug charges in federal court in May 2012. He had argued then that the stop was unconstitutional, and he tried to get evidence obtained in the search suppressed. A federal judge denied that request, and Garcia-Mendoza ultimately pleaded guilty. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to forfeit property, but nothing was forfeited in federal court.
A civil forfeiture proceeding was done in state civil court. There, a judge said the traffic stop was unconstitutional. Prosecutors had tried to argue that once the federal judge decided the stop was legal, the issue could not be re-litigated in another court, but the Supreme Court did not review that argument.
Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said the Supreme Court's ruling "sent a clear message that abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws to benefit the coffers of police departments will not be tolerated."
Anthony Sanders, an attorney at the Institute for Justice's Minnesota Office, said the Minnesota Legislature has enacted reforms on this issue. As of Aug. 1, a person must be convicted of a crime before they can lose property in civil court.