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A worker on Feb. 6 holds an anti-wage-theft sign during a hearing on House File 6, a bill from Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, that creates a gross misdemeanor for employers who withheld wages from employees. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
A worker on Feb. 6 holds an anti-wage-theft sign during a hearing on House File 6, a bill from Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, that creates a gross misdemeanor for employers who withheld wages from employees. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Wage theft; civil forfeitures; marital rape

Wage theft: A bill that creates a gross misdemeanor for employers who steal or wrongfully withhold workers’ wages likely will make a stop in the House Judiciary committee next week.

House File 6, from Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, makes it a gross misdemeanor if unpaid wages total $10,000 or more for all affected employees. It also allows the Department Labor and Industry (DLI) commissioner to fine employers $1,000 for failing to pay wages of up to $1,000.

The bill would let the commissioner fine employers $10,000 for failing to maintain full employment records or produce them on demand. That’s in addition to existing civil penalties under Minnesota States sec. 177.32, which covers employers’ obstruction of the commissioner’s duties.

The bill also gives the commissioner subpoena power to compel testimony or produce evidence. And it would prohibit retaliation against an employee who files a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights.

Mahoney told Labor Committee members earlier this month that he has spoken with many people who have pursued complaints with the DLI or district courts and found the existing process frustrating.

“Whether it was a trucking company that went out of business suddenly a couple of years ago,” Mahoney said, “or if it was personal care or it was just a lawn service, they said, ‘I didn’t get paid. How do I get it?’”

HF 6—a bill that made the DFL House’s top 10 legislative priorities for 2019—is Mahoney’s answer to that question.

In an hour of testimony, workers told stories of being ripped off at work. One man, Arturo Hernandez, said he worked as painter for a company that refused to compensate him with money.

“They were giving me some drugs to sell,” he said. He said his foreman said he would make more money selling the drugs than he could in salary. “I said, ‘No way,’” Hernandez testified. “I need my money because I need to feed my family. I’m a worker.’” He said similar things frequently happen to Hispanic laborers in Minnesota.

The business community is skeptical. Lauryn Schothorst of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce testified that, while her members condemn wage theft, some worry the bill means businesses could get dinged for honest mistakes.

“This is especially concerning for some of our smaller employers who may not have more sophisticated payroll software systems, if at all,” she said. “An inadvertent mistake or error would subject them to the serious penalties included in this bill.”

Mahoney’s bill has 35 co-authors, including two Republicans. One of those, Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, likes the legislation but considers some of its tougher penalties excessive. While he plans to keep his name on the bill, he also plans to offer an amendment to reduce some of its more stringent penalties.

“I don’t think that any employers should be able to not pay overtime or rip off any of their employees,” Gunther said. “That’s what I like about the bill.”

Scott McLellan, assistant DLI commissioner, said that 39,000 Minnesotans annually are affected by wage theft, losing nearly $12 million. Last year, he said his department processed a record number of claims and clawed back owed wages totaling $1.1 million.

Mahoney’s bill, as yet, has no Senate companion.

 

Civil forfeitures: Civil forfeitures made national news last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that state and local law enforcement officials have limited power to keep and sell assets seized during criminal investigations.

The ruling holds that provisions of the Eighth Amendment, which bar the federal government from levying excessive fines, apply to states and local government—and thus to civil forfeitures—through the Constitution’s post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment.

In her 9-0 majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that Indiana’s seizure of a man’s $42,000 Land Rover was grossly disproportionate to his crime—the sale of about $300 worth of drugs. While the SCOTUS ruling does not end civil forfeitures, it opens new legal avenues for the return of seized property if its value outstrips an offense’s severity.

“What I think is important is that this was a unanimous ruling,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul. “They didn’t soft pedal this. They were very critical of the current system, of its abuses.”

Lesch, the House Judiciary committee chair, wants to take the ruling’s effect a step farther. A bill he will introduce in the coming weeks—and which he will hear in his own committee—effectively does away with civil forfeitures in Minnesota, he said. He said it “absolutely needs to exist,” regardless of the SCOTUS ruling.

“Their entire opinion can’t be dicta on every situation related to forfeiture,” Lesch said.

The Lesch bill would import what he calls “the New Mexico model” to Minnesota. In 2015, that state barred civil forfeitures outright; now New Mexico requires a criminal conviction before a defendant forfeits property.

The New Mexico law also takes financial incentives for forfeitures away from law enforcement. It requires all forfeited money to be deposited into the state’s general fund, not law enforcement coffers. “This legislation is the straight-up New Mexico plan,” Lesch said.

Lesch said his bill differs from one offered last year by former House Ways and Means chair Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, who is now out of the Legislature. Lesch said the Knoblach bill would have severely curtailed civil forfeitures. His will do away with them.

Ben Feist, legislative director for ACLU of Minnesota, supports the legislation. He said the current system requires an owner to file suit to reclaim property, even as the criminal case is ongoing. While the bill would not prevent property seizure, Feist said, any challenge would become part of the criminal proceeding. It would not be adjudicated separately in a civil suit.

“There is a big due process issue with the fact that we have this bifurcated process,” Feist said. “It effectively makes your property guilty until proven innocent.”

According to the State Auditor’s office, law enforcement authorities grossed $9.4 million from sales of forfeited property and seized cash in 2017. Minus administrative expenses, lien obligations and returned property, authorities netted more than $7 million from forfeitures that year.

Law enforcement and county attorneys vigorously opposed Knoblach’s 2018 legislation. Several said they rely on proceeds of seized property to augment their scant budgets. Feist said he fully expects the same opposition to arise this year. “I still think they are principally opposed to any changes in the forfeiture system,” he said.

 

Jenny Teeson, left, watches on Feb. 21 as the Minnesota House votes 130-0 to approve House File 15, a bill inspired by her case that does away with a limited marital exception to sexual assault charges. (Staff Photo: Kevin Featherly)

Jenny Teeson, left, watches on Feb. 21 as the Minnesota House votes 130-0 to approve House File 15, a bill inspired by her case that does away with a limited marital exception to sexual assault charges. (Staff Photo: Kevin Featherly)

Marital rape exception: Jenny Teeson did it—at least in the House. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to take up her cause.

With a 130-0 vote on Feb. 21, the Minnesota House passed House File 15, a bill to end a limited exception to rape charges if the victim was either married to or living with the offender at the time of the crime.

It was inspired by Teeson’s case. Several years ago, the Andover woman was unable to secure a sexual assault conviction against her now ex-husband, despite video evidence of what she has publicly described as a heinous assault. Eventually, he was convicted of a lesser invasion of privacy charge.

Working as a citizen advocate, Teeson pressed hard for legislation to eliminate the exception. A bill was moved forward last year by current House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, but never became law. It was included in the 2018 supplemental omnibus finance bill that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed.

This year, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, took up the cause. “Members, Jenny has done her part,” Stephenson told his colleagues on the House floor. “It’s time for us to do ours.”

As a unanimous vote lit up the House chamber’s big board with green lights, Teeson wept in the gallery. Afterward, members gave her a 30-second standing ovation.

The bill’s GOP companion, Senate File 235, is authored by Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. It awaits action in the Senate Judiciary committee.

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