Minnesota Supreme Court Upholds Constitutional Protection of Private Property in Civil Forfeiture Cases

In a case involving whether the government can violate property owners’ constitutional rights and get away with it, today the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled squarely in favor of property rights. The case, Garcia-Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe, is a victory in the nationwide battle against civil forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture is a legal procedure giving law enforcement officials the power to take property allegedly connected to a crime. It allows police to take cash, cars, and other property of Minnesotans and pocket the proceeds to pad their own budgets. The question before the court was if the government has obtained evidence in violation of the Constitution, must that evidence be excluded in a civil forfeiture proceeding just like it must be excluded in a criminal prosecution?

In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case known as One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania that the Fourth Amendment prohibited using evidence obtained illegally during civil forfeiture proceedings. However, in the case decided today, the lower court unexpectedly ruled the opposite. At the Minnesota Supreme Court, the seizing agency, Hennepin County, argued that Plymouth Sedan is no longer good law and that it should have the power to violate the U.S. Constitution and not be penalized for taking private property.

The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously held that Plymouth Sedan is still good law and that Minnesota law enforcement cannot violate property owners’ constitutional rights and take people’s property. The decision’s author, Justice Christopher Dietzen, wrote “We conclude that the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule applies to civil forfeiture actions” under the statutes at issue in the case, which apply to a majority of crimes where a forfeiture can be made under Minnesota law.

“This decision is another step forward toward ending the legal fiction of vehicles and cash being found guilty in civil court,” said Lee McGrath, Managing Attorney of IJ’s Minnesota office and the firm’s Legislative Counsel. “The day when criminal forfeiture replaces civil forfeiture in Minnesota is closer because of this important ruling.”

Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in Minnesota and across the nation. Unlike criminalforfeiture, in which the ill-gotten gains of criminal activity may be transferred to the government after an individual is convicted of the crime, police and prosecutors in most states can use civil forfeiture to seize and take away cash, cars, homes or other property without having to convict the owner with any wrongdoing. Fortunately, Minnesota’s forfeiture law was improved in the recent legislative session. Effective August 1, a person must be convicted of a crime in criminal court as a prerequisite to losing property in civil court.

The Institute for Justice filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the property owner. IJ discussed how the U.S. Supreme Court and almost all lower courts have applied the exclusionary rule to civil forfeiture, preventing law enforcement from violating the Constitution and nevertheless profiting from their illegal actions. IJ also extensively discussed its report, A Stacked Deck: How Minnesota’s Civil Forfeiture Laws Put Citizens’ Property at Risk (2013), http://www.ij.org/stacked-deck.

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. For a copy of the brief IJ filed in the case, visit https://www.ij.org/images/pdf_folder/amicus_briefs/danielgarciamendoza_2003chevytahoe_amicus.pdf.