Civil asset forfeiture laws in the U.S. were originally created to allow law enforcement agencies to strip drug king-pins of their Miami Vice-style speed boats, and couch forts made out money. Now, however, criticism of these laws is growing louder, as many say they now overreach and seize private property from citizens who haven’t been convicted of crimes. One recent example centers around a woman who lost her car for an offense she didn’t commit, then had to spend thousands to get it back.
TV station KSTP reported a story on Minnesota’s state police having the legal right to seize and sell someone’s personal property without conviction, then keep 100 percent of the proceeds. It was brought to light after Minnesota State Patrol officers seized a woman’s 2013 Chevrolet Camaro after a DWI traffic stop. Her car was taken away even though she was not driving, nor charged with drunk driving, the story said.
According to KSTP, the Camaro owner, Emma Dietrich, decided to let her coworker drive them home after she did not feel safe enough to drive. The coworker was clocked at over 100 mph and stopped by state troopers. Dietrich did not know the driver had a prior DWI infraction. When he refused to take a breathalyzer test, he was arrested, and the car was seized under Minnesota’s forfeiture law.
Now, the logic behind this rule is that police will seize and sell vehicles belonging to repeated drunk drivers to prevent them from doing it again. KSTP reports that three out of four vehicles seized between 2016 and 2018 were from drunk driving-related arrests. But in Dietrich’s case, she was riding shotgun in her own car and it was still taken away from her.
After giving up a long and bizarre civil lawsuit process, made worse by this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, Dietrich had to give up and pay the state police $4,000 to get her own car back. As a bonus, the Camaro now has to wear “whiskey plates,” used by police to identify vehicles with prior drinking and driving convictions even though Dietrich was never charged with driving under the influence.
One detail in the KSTP investigation showed that Minnesota’s state cops have seized nearly 14,000 vehicles in the last three years and generated close to $10 million in revenue in the process. Yet I have to wonder how many of those vehicles were cases like the one Dietrich was involved in—people who weren’t even convicted of crimes, and worse, who couldn’t afford to buy back their own car like she did.
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