Minn. Supreme Court limits property seizures

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that evidence obtained illegally may not be used to deny a civil complaint against seizure of property. Civil liberties advocates say the court's ruling once again tightens the rules on when law enforcement agencies are allowed to seize a person's property or money.

The case begins with the 2012 traffic stop of Daniel Garcia-Mendoza. A Plymouth, Minn., police officer discovered that the 2003 Chevy Tahoe Garcia-Mendoza was driving was registered to Ricardo Cervantes-Perez -- a name later found to be an alias.

Garcia-Mendoza showed police a Mexican ID card with that name and said he didn't have a valid Minnesota license. Before towing the Tahoe, police did "an inventory search" and discovered a crystal substance that later tested positive for methamphetamine. Police seized the SUV and $611 in cash, in a process called forfeiture.

Garcia-Mendoza later challenged the forfeiture with a civil complaint, asking the court to decide if the police action was proper. But both the district court and the court of appeals said rules governing improper search and seizure did not apply in a civil case. That's even after a state court found the search was illegal.

The Supreme Court decision reverses an earlier appeals court decision that would have allowed the agency to keep Garcia-Mendoza's property.

Garcia-Mendoza pleaded guilty to unrelated drug trafficking charges going back to December 2011 activities in federal court. Through his plea, the lower courts said, Garcia-Mendoza had given up the rights to his Tahoe and cash, because they constituted and were "derived from, any proceeds [he] obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of [his] violation, as well as any and all of [his] property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part, to commit..[his] violation."

Attorney Kirk Anderson represented Garcia-Mendoza in challenging the forfeiture. Anderson said prosecutors previously argued that even if the initial search was illegal in regards to the criminal portion, that it wasn't relevant to the civil forfeiture proceedings. He said this ruling makes it clear that Fourth Amendment privacy protections extend to civil matters as well.

Civil forfeitures, which don't require a criminal conviction, netted state law enforcement agencies about $30 million between 2003 and 2010, according to an analysis released last year by the Institute for Justice, which advocated for reform.

The state's forfeiture laws were so abused by the now-disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force that a federal court awarded $840,000 to victims in 2012.

A law passed by the Minnesota Legislature that went into effect this month says police may not keep money or property seized in drugs cases unless there's a conviction.

Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said other states and courts have taken similar steps to limit the possible abuse of forfeiture laws.

"It's a steady reining in of this forfeiture power," Nelson said. "We don't want policing for profit. We don't want to give police the incentive to go after low-hanging fruit and money for their department, instead we want them to focus on public safety overall."

The Minnesota Supreme Court remanded the forfeiture case back to the Court of Appeals to consider other legal issues.

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