Minnesota lawmakers reach tentative deal on police accountability measures

The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul
The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul, as seen on on Sunday afternoon.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

After months of negotiations, Minnesota lawmakers have agreed on a package of new rules governing law enforcement in the state.

The deal includes restrictions on no-knock warrants, on confidential informants and jailhouse witnesses, and on the ability of police to seize suspects’ property. But the bill, negotiated between the Republican-controlled Senate, the DFL-controlled House, and DFL Gov. Tim Walz, doesn’t contain the far-reaching changes that many activists had demanded after recent high-profile deaths at the hands of law enforcement.  

The deal comes as part of a public safety budget for the state of Minnesota. It, and other parts of the state budget, must pass before Thursday, July 1, or unfunded parts of the government will shut down.  

Most other parts of the state budget have been negotiated and are on the path to passage. The only major unresolved issue now is an end to Tim Walz’s COVID-19 emergency powers

What the bill contains 

The deal, announced late Saturday evening, includes several significant changes to the rules governing law enforcement in Minnesota. Among the provisions in the 223-page bill: 

  • Police have to satisfy a range of new requirements in order to be granted a “no-knock warrant” allowing them to break into a suspect’s home unannounced, including explicit justification why a conventional warrant won’t work, and sign-offs from the agency’s chief law enforcement officer and a second senior officer. Agencies will also have to submit data to the state on their use of no-knock warrants, which will release a report to lawmakers once per year. Critics say these unannounced raids can easily lead to violence, while defenders say they can be essential to stop the destruction of evidence. 

  • Significant new restrictions on “civil asset forfeiture,” the process by which law enforcement can seize money or vehicles that were allegedly used in the course of a crime. The bill limits the circumstances under which police can try to seize a vehicle, and provides an explicit process for an “innocent owner” to contest the seizure of their vehicle. 

  • Closing a loophole in the state’s law covering rape of someone who is “mentally incapacitated” due to alcohol or drugs. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled this year that the state’s existing statute only makes it a crime to sexually assault a mentally incapacitated person if someone else caused them to be intoxicated. The new language makes it a crime if the victim voluntarily consumed the intoxicants, too.  

  • Another provision provides a “safe harbor” from drug or underage drinking charges for victims of sexual assault or people reporting it, with the goal of encouraging people to report these serious crimes rather than cover them up to avoid charges for drug or alcohol violations.  

  • “Matthew’s Law” puts new rules in place for police use of confidential informants, especially using these informants to conduct drug buys. It’s named after Matthew Klaus, a Rochester man who overdosed on heroin he had bought at the request of police.  

  • Other language limits prosecutors’ use of jailhouse informants, who testify about information allegedly heard from defendants behind bars in return for leniency. The new provision would require prosecutors to disclose a host of new information to defense attorneys about any jailhouse informants they plan to use in their case, including what benefits prosecutors are offering the informant, and any other people besides the defendant who the informant implicated. Among other factors, the APM Reports podcast In The Dark revealed that a key prosecution witness in a prominent Mississippi murder case later recanted and admitted to making up his claims.   

  • Creates a new crime of “sexual extortion,” where an individual compels another to submit to sexual activity through a range of activities, including a threat to the victim’s job, a threat to report their immigration status, or a threat to evict someone or otherwise hurt their housing situation. This follows a January report to the Legislature from a working group examining the issue

  • Corrections officers will be barred from using chokeholds or prone restraint on inmates in most circumstances. 

What the bill doesn’t contain 

A number of provisions that DFL lawmakers and activists had pushed for didn’t make it into the final bill, including a limit on “pretextual stops” where police pull over motorists for minor violations such as expired plates or objects hanging from the rearview mirror, or requiring early release of body camera footage when law enforcement officers use deadly force. 

DFL lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the final compromise with Senate Republicans.  

“It's a great disappointment to me,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. “It should be a great disappointment to the House. There were a number of common-sense proposals [not included].” 

Senate Republican leader Paul Gazelka had resisted many of the DFL proposals to restrict law enforcement practices, saying they could threaten public safety. He released a statement calling the final bill one of “general, bipartisan agreement.” 

What’s next 

The agreement released this weekend isn’t the final step. The legislation still has to pass both the House and Senate, where dissatisfied lawmakers could vote it down or add unplanned amendments. The measure could face criticism from both sides, with conservatives saying it goes too far and liberals saying it doesn’t go far enough.  

If it passes both chambers, it requires Walz’s signature to become law.  

In addition to a range of new policies, the bill also contains funding for law enforcement agencies and prisons. The normal operation of these agencies would be threatened if lawmakers don’t pass funding by July 1.  

The public safety bill is scheduled for a debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. The Senate hasn’t yet scheduled a floor debate, but will have one in the next few days.

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