Lesch bill overhauls forfeitures.

 
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Byline: Kevin Featherly

The state law that allowed Ramsey County to seize Stephanie Walker's vehicle and keep it for a year was declared unconstitutional, as applied, by the Minnesota Supreme Court on March 13.

With immaculate timing, her lawyerwho happens to chair House Judiciarytwo days earlier shepherded House File 1971 through his committee. The bipartisan bill would have given his client a chance to get her property back a lot faster.

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said that the court's Olson v. 1999 Lexus ruling is evidence that his bill is badly needed. "I think the decision reaffirms that the Legislature is moving in the right direction," he said shortly after the ruling was handed down. (See Innocent owner of seized vehicle wins on appeal.)

Lesch's client was not party to Olson, but the cases were similar.

Olson involved a repeat drunken driver who got busted behind the wheel of her mom's car. The vehicle was forfeited even though its owner was innocent of the offense. The Supreme Court last week declared that an unconstitutional application of Minnesota's civil forfeiture law. (Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Justice Anne McKeig dissented from that finding.)

Walker's case was handled by Lesch in his role as a private-practice attorney. His client had loaned her car to her boyfriend in 2016 so he could deliver her $1,249 cash rent payment to her landlord.

Along the way, he picked up a chum who was carrying a small vial of cough syrup. They got pulled over by a state trooper. The friend fled, leaving the vial in the car. The trooper found it and thought it contained narcotics. Investigators then seized both the car and Walker's money.

That put Walker and her toddler son out of their apartment, Lesch said, because she couldn't pay rent. With no transportation, she lost her job. Eventually test results came back revealing that the cough syrup was legal.

"It was not until almost a year later that Ramsey County finally conceded they had no reason to seize this vehicle," he told committee members on March 11. "Meanwhile, all the damage had been done."

The current civil forfeiture process allows law enforcement to confiscate and sell off seized property. Law enforcement and prosecutors see it as a potent tool for stripping criminals of the fruits of their crimes while helping agencies finance anti-drug-trafficking efforts.

But to Lesch and his bill's supporters, seizure too often equals rip-off. "This perpetrates, in my opinion, a crime...

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