Minnesota Civil Forfeitures

When you think of punishments the government can hand out for violations of a law, you probably think of jail time and/or fines.  Although these are obviously major

Do Not Cross…

contenders in the punishment world, there is a third type of sanction the government can impose:  forfeiture.   Forfeiture essentially involves the government taking possession of property that has a connection to illegal activity.  Forfeiture comes in two varieties, criminal and civil.  Criminal forfeiture is fairly easy to understand and doesn’t need much in the way of explanation; for example, if the police lawfully search your house and find goods that are dangerous or that are intended for use in a felony, those goods can be seized.

Civil forfeiture, on the other hand, is slightly more complicated.   It also involves government seizure of property connected to illegal activity, such as the confiscation of a motorcycle owned by a driver who was convicted of driving while intoxicated (DWI), or the taking of a house in which drugs were found .

How does this happen??

Instead of happening in the course of a criminal proceeding against a person, the forfeiture happens via a civil lawsuit which is, oddly enough, brought against the property itself (hence a plethora of unusual case names like “Hawes v. 1997 Jeep Wrangler”).  The idea is that civil forfeiture is not a punishment as such but rather a tool used to confiscate property used illegally, compensate the government for its time spent prosecuting and punishing criminal behavior, and discourage illegal conduct.

In a state civil forfeiture proceeding, the government derives its authority from a state statute providing for the forfeiture of the item.  For example, Minnesota state law provides for the forfeiture of property associated with controlled substances.  This is a fairly wide-ranging law that allows for the confiscation of all property “that has been used, or is intended for use, or has in any way facilitated, in whole or in part, the manufacturing, compounding, processing, delivering, importing, cultivating, exporting, transporting, or exchanging of contraband or a [illegal] controlled substance.”  That’s a pretty exhaustive list!  Minnesota also has a similar law for the forfeiture of vehicles involved in DWI incidents.

Double Jeopardy concerns

If you have already been convicted of a crime and your property is subsequently taken in a civil forfeiture proceeding, does this violate the double jeopardy clause of the federal constitution, which prohibits the government from punishing a person twice for the same offense?  In general, courts have found that it does not, though obviously it’s likely that a person who loses property through a civil forfeiture proceeding would disagree.  The idea behind the courts’ reasoning is that civil forfeitures serve primarily non-punitive goals and thus are not actually “punishment.”  However, in some limited circumstances, it can be argued that a civil forfeiture statute is punitive in nature and that therefore a civil forfeiture proceeding undertaken after a criminal prosecution violates double jeopardy.  If you think you may be in such a situation, we recommend discussing your case with an experienced lawyer.

Thomas Hagen
Kohlmeyer & Hagen Law Office
Mankato, Minnesota MN 56001
507-625-5000