The State of North Dakota Should Give This #NoDAPL Protester His Truck Back

Law enforcement seized Aaron Dorn's 2003 Chevrolet Silverado in his arrest during a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Nov. 24, 2016, in Mandan. Despite his acquittal on charges from that day, he's still involved in a legal battle for the return of his truck in civil asset forfeiture proceedings. Submitted photo

The #NoDAPL protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were, unfortunately, an exercise in violence and political extremism.

That said, that the State of North Dakota would use civil asset forfeiture laws to keep the property of a protester acquitted of charges seems an injustice, yet that seems to be exactly what’s happening to New  York resident Aaron Dorn who was acquitted of charges related to a protest in Mandan but yet still can’t get his truck back from the state.

Jack Dura reports in the Bismarck Tribune:

In June, Dorn was acquitted at trial, but his legal battle isn’t over. Morton County has held his 2003 Chevrolet Silverado since his arrest. Even though Dorn was acquitted, getting his truck back is a separate matter involving civil asset forfeiture, or the law enforcement seizure of property suspected to be involved in criminal activity.

Dorn is facing a tough challenge as the Institute for Justice ranks North Dakota as one of the worst states in the nation for civil asset forfeiture laws based on the state’s low burden for seizure and forfeiture, with no conviction required, only probable cause.

The Institute for Justice gave North Dakota an “F” when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. Here’s how they described the situation back in 2016:

In North Dakota, law enforcement only needs to meet the lowest possible standard of proof—probable cause—to forfeit property. And when property has been used for illegal activity without the owner’s knowledge, the burden is on the owner to prove her innocence in order to recover it. Finally, North Dakota law enforcement agents operate under a particularly dangerous financial incentive: Agencies receive up to 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds up to $200,000. If the government’s forfeiture fund exceeds $200,000 over any two-year budget period, the excess must be deposited in the general fund—encouraging law enforcement agencies to adopt a use-it-or-lose-it mentality.

It’s not at all clear how often law enforcement uses forfeiture in the state. There is no state requirement that law enforcement agencies report what they take through this process. The data is available via open records request, but you’d have to make a request of every agency in the state to get a clear picture of the dollar amounts, and often the forfeiture proceeds are shared among multiple agencies.

As an example of how pernicious this can be, consider the case of a man named Aaron Bush who was accused of stealing a safe from a bar in 2013. He was acquitted of the crime at trial, but a judge ruled that the cops should still get to keep his car which they say was used in the crime he was acquitted of.

…the cops keep your stuff, and sometimes they keep it even after you’ve been acquitted.

And when I say the cops kept the car, I really mean keep it. Law enforcement keeps the money. Here’s how Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, explained it to me back in 2014 when I requested information about civil asset forfeitures in North Dakota: “The assets were forfeited upon order of the court and were either ordered forfeited directly to the BCI/task force or the court ordered the assets forfeited to another law enforcement agency and because we assisted in the investigation of a case or cases, that law enforcement agency then turned over to us a prorated share of the forfeited asset funds it received.”

In other words, the cops keep your stuff, and sometimes they keep it even after you’ve been acquitted.

There was an attempt to fix this problem (because I do believe it’s a big problem) during the 2017 legislative session. Rep. Rick Becker, a Republican from Bismarck, introduced HB1170 which would have prohibited the forfeiture of property in the absence of a guilty verdict for the property’s owner. It would also have required any revenues from forfeited property go into the state’s general fund instead of to law enforcement.

It passed the state House, but failed to get a single vote in the state Senate (video of the floor debate on the issue at the link).

A bedrock principle in the criminal justice system is that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But when law enforcement uses civil asset forfeiture laws to keep property even after an acquittal what they’re saying is you’re guilty anyway. Because the whole justification for them keeping your property is their belief, based on a horrendously low burden of proof, that the property was used in a crime.

How is that justice?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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