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As a Bismarck lawmaker looks to reform North Dakota's civil asset forfeiture law, a tribal prosecutor highlighted the scope of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's related code. 

John Wilson, chief prosecutor for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said at the Tribal Leaders Summit on Wednesday in Bismarck that the tribe limits asset forfeiture to drug trafficking cases. Federal prosecutors, however, usually get first crack at a case, as Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement serves Standing Rock.

North Dakota has been rated as one of the "worst" states in the United States by the Institute for Justice for its asset forfeiture laws, stemming from the low burden of proof for forfeiture, the owner's burden to prove their property wasn't involved in a crime and an alleged incentive for law enforcement agencies to confiscate property to fill their coffers.

Wilson emphasized due process in tribal forfeiture proceedings, such as searching for vehicles' lien holders and all other potential owners.

North Dakota's civil asset forfeiture law allows for property to be forfeited from people who haven't been convicted or even charged.

Aaron Dorn, who was accused and later acquitted of felony charges related to a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 in Mandan, has been unable to get his confiscated truck back even after acquittal at trial. His truck awaits a judge's order for forfeiture.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, told the Tribune he wants to reform North Dakota's asset forfeiture law to allow acquitted persons to retain their seized property and for proceeds from forfeited property to go into the state's general fund. His reform efforts were unsuccessful in 2017 after North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's opposing testimony and zero support in the state Senate. 

Becker also said there's a "perverse incentive" for law enforcement to seize as much property as possible in times of tight budgets, which he said has been evidenced in other states. He said arguments against his proposals point to known criminals who "may be guilty even though they're found not guilty." 

"We have to refocus on the innocent, not on the occasional scumbag that gets off on a technicality .... The bigger point is it’s not worth having this law in place that can adversely affect innocent people with the idea that it’s going to somehow deter the drug dealers and human traffickers," Becker said.

Wilson said he's spoken with Becker about aspects of asset forfeiture and can understand his perspective. The tribal prosecutor said any reforms also should consider abandoned property and acquittals. 

"I don't think that's an unfair change to make, that if somebody is acquitted, a jury felt that they were not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, it's a little unfair then to seize their property based on a lesser standard of proof," Wilson said. 

Former North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, now a partner at Robins Kaplan in Bismarck, was part of an Obama-era U.S. Department of Justice advisory committee that discussed asset forfeiture reform. He said public opinion and perception of asset forfeiture is important to consider, especially when fewer and fewer people see a policy as acceptable.

"When you're a public official or you're a law enforcement official, you have to be very in tune to what the public sees as justice," Purdon told the Tribune.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Crime and Courts Reporter