Changes to Safe at Home law spur new county procedures

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An imaginative solution by lawyers in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office will now allow some people to buy a house or other property without revealing their location.

Under the state’s 2007 Safe at Home law, people such as victims of domestic abuse, stalking and sexual assault or others who have a realistic fear for their safety, can use a post office box as their official address when filling out utility bill, employment, government or other forms. That way, no one can use public or private documents to track down where they are living.

However, in 2013, the Minnesota Legislature amended the law so that government agencies were required to keep data private that might reveal the identity and location of a person in the Safe at Home program who asked for their data to be protected. That was a problem because Minnesota’s real estate system is based on open access to land records. Keeping the owner’s name and actual location secret could result in title problems, making it impossible for property sales to go forward or mortgages to be taken on properties. Officials in the Hennepin County Recorder’s Office were baffled by how they could comply with the new law and maintain open access to land records.

“They couldn’t see how anyone in the Safe at Home program could own property,” said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Becca Holschuh.

So Holschuh and fellow civil attorney Rick Sheridan and Senior Managing Attorney of the Civil Division, Dan Rogan, met with Mark Chapin, director of the county’s resident and real estate services department, to design a solution. Chapin suggested that the group meet with the officials of the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, since it runs the Safe at Home program.

While the state officials were cooperative, a solution remained elusive. Holschuh said the members of her working group proposed many possibilities, including arranging for volunteer lawyers to work with people enrolled in Safe at Home to put their property in a trust. But none of the suggestions worked completely. Finally, Sheridan suggested creating a private index for Safe at Home participants.

Working with Kim Foster, the examiner of titles and chief legal advisor for torrens property in Chapin’s division, and County Recorder Marty McCormick and his staff, they stitched together a plan that allowed some real estate documents to be held in a private index. The existence of these documents will be noted in the public indices but access to the protected documents is restricted.

“This is another example of why the citizens of Hennepin County should be proud of the lawyers in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. “When the law was passed, we were the county that led the way by accepting the challenge of finding a solution that would allow real estate transactions to occur while protecting people who have serious safety concerns. It took nearly a year of working with other government agencies, but they came up with a brilliant solution.”

One last step was necessary. Working with the Secretary of State’s office, the county’s work group pushed for another change in the law in the 2014 Minnesota Legislative session. They wanted the law amended so that counties could come up with their own solutions. That law passed and the private index is now used in Hennepin County for people who participate in the Safe At Home program.

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office said that the Safe at Home currently has about 1,800 people enrolled throughout Minnesota. Rogan noticed one other problem with the 2013 amendments. It made it illegal for government agencies to share the location of a Safe at Home participant. That could lead to a situation where a police officer needs an ambulance to help an injured participant, but the dispatcher would be breaking the law by telling the ambulance driver the location. The legislature made changes to that part of the law, as well.

In December, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie presented the Hennepin County Recorder’s Office the National Association of Secretaries of State Medallion for the work of that office and the county attorneys in creating the private index solution. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Ben Schweigert and law clerk Adam Forsch also helped and where part of the group honored by Ritchie.