Agreement Advances Important Forfeiture Reforms - June 27, 2021
Saint Paul, MN - Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha released the following statement on the public safety and judiciary legislative agreement released early this morning:
Including forfeiture reforms in the public safety and judiciary agreement is just what the numbers call for. Based on our data, the language in the agreement starts the right conversation, particularly around small forfeitures.
The agreement includes limits on small forfeitures, those under $1500, and expands the data available to the public about the collection and expenditure of forfeitures.
Small forfeitures offer minimal financial benefit at the system level and have disproportionately negative impacts on individuals in lower income levels. That means restricting small forfeitures can have big benefits with little cost.
Our office releases an annual report of the asset forfeitures governed by Minnesota statutes. Each year we track trends in the value and number of forfeitures, as well as the types of property and crimes involved, based on data that law enforcement is required to report to us.
We found that in 2019, the net value of all forfeitures in the $1500 and less category was about $1.5 million. The average size of an individual forfeiture in that category was $473. That category accounted for 75% of the forfeitures that resulted in proceeds we monitored. Furthermore, these numbers were typical of what we saw in the past five years.
Proceeds from small forfeitures are, at best, a minor and unpredictable part of any public safety department’s revenue stream. Total local government spending on police and sheriff services in 2019 was just over $1.7 billion. That means small forfeitures accounted for only 0.4% of those budgets. Changes in such a small fraction of a budget are definitely manageable.
On the other hand, if a low income person experiences a forfeiture of even a few hundred dollars, the impact can be catastrophic. It may mean the difference between making rent and experiencing homelessness. Losing that car can lead to missing work and losing your job.
While we can all agree there should be consequences for crime, it is worth remembering that some of Minnesota’s forfeiture laws allow for forfeiture even before a person is convicted. Even when forfeitures happen upon conviction, low income people experience disproportionately high and often unintended consequences when it comes to small asset forfeitures.
Because the agreement also includes expanded data collection and reporting, we will be able to better test these assertions going forward. By not only collecting expanded data on the funds that come into an entity via forfeiture, we will be better tracking how they are spent as well.
The language in the agreement regarding forfeiture reform is the result of an impressive collaboration between a number of police reform organizations, policy makers, and law enforcement. This agreement makes real progress in improving forfeiture for Minnesotans.