Minnesota lawmakers are once again looking to reform the state's civil forfeiture laws.
Existing law allows law enforcement agencies to seize civil assets, including vehicles and cash, if they are connected to criminal activity, even if the owner of those assets is not charged with a crime.
State Auditor Julie Blaha this week testified in support of asset forfeiture reform. HF 75 limits vehicles and property subject to forfeiture, as well as providing for recovery of property by innocent owners.
“When it comes to asset forfeitures, the big story is in the small numbers,” Auditor Blaha said in a news release.
"The average forfeiture is $473," she said. "That's not much to law enforcement, but it's a lot to a person living on the edge. That's rent."
Blaha said the existing law is not doing much to stem crime, but greatly punishes individuals whose financial resources are thin.
The proposed law, introduced by Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, would raise the minimum amount of cash forfeitures to $1,500, and limit vehicle forfeitures.
Many of the changes are directed at "innocent owners." The new law would permit a person other than the driver of a seized vehicle to claim being an innocent owner and provides a process for recovering the vehicle.
Critics of the existing law claim vehicle seizures disproportionately punish low-income families who rely on their vehicles to get to child care and work.
So what role does the state auditor play in shaping forfeiture law? Law enforcement agencies must report on what forfeitures are taken in and how the proceeds are used. The auditor is responsible for collecting and analyzing that information to determine the efficacy of the law.
Public policy support is just one of the roles filled by the state auditor's office led by Blaha, a DFLer from Ramsey who took office in 2019.
She ticks off a list of duties: Local government audits, investigations, compliance checks and support services and training, among other things. It seems like a lot for an office whose very existence has been challenged.
"We help fix problems before they become news," she said.
The office performs audits for about half of the state's counties, some cities and a small number of school districts. "The best part of my job is I get to work with local governments," she said.
The State Auditor's Office provides valuable service for local governments and all of Minnesota.