James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Former U.S. Sen. Barkley gets his impounded car back

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: August 22, 2014 - 10:10 AM

On Thursday, Dean Barkley had his day in court, and he emerged with a victory. The former U.S. Senator successfully challenged the Golden Valley police's effort to confiscate his 2005 GMC Envoy through forfeiture. The SUV has been parked since April in a towing company's lot since it was seized by police from a relative of Barkley, who had borrowed the Envoy, got pulled over and charged with DWI.

Back in May, I reported how Barkley filed a lawsuit to recover his car, and in the process become a critic of police forfeiture laws. He had the benefit of lawyer friends who took on his case pro bono. After a brief hearing Thursday, with maybe five minutes of testimony from Barkley, Hennepin District Judge John McShane ordered the Envoy returned to its owner.

I talked to Barkley this morning, and he told me what happened next. An hour after the hearing, Barkley made his way to the impound lot, but noticed his car had no license plates. So he had to drive it to Driver and Vehicle Services to get new ones, he said. They gave him "whiskey plates," and now he has to fight to get rid of them.

Lesson learned? "The forfeiture laws are blatantly unconstitutional," Barkley told me. "It just tromps on everyone's civil rights."

This week, Minnesota's highest court agreed with Barkley. On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court issued two unanimous rulings that police and prosecutors are going beyond the law in confiscating people's property. One of the rulings asserted, for the first time, that the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure applied to civil, not just criminal forfeitures.

"Thank God the court is coming to their senses with that stupid law," Barkley said.

If you needed any more explanation of why the government loves forfeiture, just look at the haul from the prosecution of convicted synthetic drug dealer Jim Carlson, erstwhile proprietor of Duluth's Last Place on Earth head shop. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced their intention to confiscate bank accounts, cars, snowmobiles and real estate in two states and Cozumel, Mexico. Total value: $6.5 million.

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