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Forfeitures bring money into county

The drug business is bringing much-needed revenues into Hubbard County coffers.

Minnesota forfeiture laws allow authorities to seize, in most cases, cash from drug sales, vehicles used in those transactions and other assets of convicted drug dealers.

Repeat drunken drivers can also have their vehicles seized and sold.

In 1971 Minnesota authorized the seizure of certain property associated with the use or transportation of controlled substances. Since then the law has been expanded to allow seizures in criminal offenses involving murder, aggravated assault, criminal sexual conduct, criminal vehicular homicide, robbery, kidnapping, prostitution, bribery, fraud and theft.

In 1995 the Legislature expanded the seizure of property in DWI-related arrests involving snowmobiles, ATVs, boats and automobiles. Any vehicle used in an incident resulting in a third impaired driving conviction in five years or a fourth conviction in 15 years is subject to forfeiture.

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne said the offenses have to be at least 2nd Degree DWIs.

Items, besides vehicles, subject to seizure include money, precious metals, gems, negotiable instruments, securities, property and other valuables.

Forfeitures are also a growing business for the state. In 2007, gross sales of forfeited property or seized cash amounted to $4.8 million, said state auditor Rebecca Otto. That was up 24 percent from 2006.

Hubbard County was not among the reporting agencies for 2007 because its revenues were derived primarily from DWI cases, which agencies are not required to report.

In DWI cases, 70 percent of the forfeiture funds go to the arresting agency; 30 percent goes to the prosecuting authority.

Hubbard County will be listed in the 2008 and 2009 state reports. That's because money has been seized from two fairly large drug cases.

In 2007 authorities seized more than $6,400 from Ricky Lee Harsha, a Park Rapids man sentenced to four years in prison for 2nd Degree Possession of a controlled substance. He was arrested in October 2006; authorities found him to be in possession of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The cash was seized in his arrest.

Defendants must be convicted of the drug or alcohol crime before the seizure can be concluded. Because it takes awhile for forfeiture cases to get through the court system, the Harsha money didn't get credited to the county until 2008.

Defendants have the right to appeal any forfeiture, which lengthens the time it takes for seizure cases to get through the judicial system.

In drug cases, cash or net proceeds from the sale of forfeited property is distributed 70 percent to the arresting agency, 20 percent to the prosecuting agency and 10 percent to the state. As with the DWI monies, agencies must use the drug proceeds for the apprehension, prosecution, and prevention of similar crimes.

Dearstyne admits the forfeitures can be controversial.

"Some people say the person is getting doubly penalized because you're giving them a criminal sentence and taking their property, too," he said.

"With DWIs, I don't want to meet an intoxicated person on the road with my family" if the vehicle could have been seized to prevent a recurring DWI, he said. "It's the same with drug forfeitures," he added. "It's generally cash and firearms and I don't believe as a matter of public policy we should leave those things in the hands of the individuals."

The arrests of a Park Rapids family for drug possession last year presented some unique seizure issues for prosecutors.

Clifford James, his wife, Penny, his son and son's girlfriend were all arrested in May 2008 and charged with possession of methamphetamine and marijuana. In August, Hubbard County District Judge Paul Rasmussen dismissed the charges and tossed out the search warrant that precipitated the arrests. He ruled the warrant affidavit didn't contain sufficient probable cause to search the family's home and seize the drugs.

Undeterred, Dearstyne's office immediately moved to seize $9,175 in currency, coins, personal belongings and guns "incident to the arrest."

He won, because the "exclusionary rule" that prevented admission of the evidence in the criminal cases didn't apply to the forfeiture, which is a civil proceeding. The James funds will be distributed to the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department, County Attorney and state this year.

But the James saga isn't over. Clifford James was arrested a second time for drug possession in July 2008. He was convicted Dec. 12, 2008 of 3rd Degree Possession of narcotics and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Once again, the Hubbard County Attorney's office moved to seize property it believed was essential to the transaction - the family car.

This time, it was a steeper hill. On Dec. 19, Judge Robert Tiffany ruled because the car was in Penny James' name and she was not notified of the seizure, the vehicle must be returned. Clifford James was the person notified of the forfeiture action.

The case is under appeal.

Dearstyne maintains the vehicle was used to transport the drugs so it's a fair target regardless of whose name it's registered in.

Cash, guns and cars must be part of the criminal enterprise for prosecutors to seize them.

But just as businesses suffer a downturn, so has the drug industry. The number of meth labs has decreased markedly due to legislation regulating the ingredients to make it.

Dearstyne believes drugs are still moving through the region, using the Highway 71 corridor that runs from Canada to Mexico.

And despite judges handing down the maximum sentences possible, repeat drunken drivers are also moving throughout the region.

Dearstyne just hopes taking their vehicles, their cash and their liberty whenever possible will put a dent in their activities - and put some much-needed revenue in Hubbard County's piggy bank.