$2.5 million in claims filed against Gang Strike Force

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2012 - 10:42 PM

215 people cite property seizure, break-ins and excessive use of force.

Following a class-action lawsuit against the Metro Gang Strike Force, 215 individuals who allege they were victimized by the defunct law enforcement agency have filed claims worth a total of $2.5 million.

The claims include allegations of illegal break-ins of homes, unconstitutional seizure of property and use of excessive force by the agency, which was disbanded in July 2009 after revelations of widespread misconduct by its officers. Mark Gehan, a special master appointed by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen, will determine whether each of the claims has merit and expects to decide on the cases around June 1.

Dave Cialkowski, an attorney for Zimmerman Reed, the Minneapolis law firm that filed the class-action suit on behalf of the victims, said all but two of the claims are being challenged at least in part by attorneys for the Strike Force.

Joe Flynn, an attorney for the Strike Force and the cities and counties whose officers served on it, contends that more than a third of the claims involve a different police agency and thus would be ineligible for compensation.

"There are some [claims] we believe are fictional," he said.

While the claims remain confidential, Jason Johnston, an attorney for the claimants, described one: A north Minneapolis man said that in February 2007, he was watching television with a friend when members of the Metro Gang Strike Force burst through the door, put him on the floor, handcuffed him and asked him where they could find the drugs.

The Strike Force confiscated a ring, a camera and about $3,000 in cash, the man claims. He says he was arrested but never convicted. He also said he was never given a receipt for the property or cash taken.

Johnston said that the Strike Force lawyers, in their response, acknowledged that the Strike Force was involved in the raid. Flynn declined to discuss any specific claims.

The Strike Force was a multi-jurisdiction law enforcement agency created to battle gangs. It was accused by the legislative auditor and a separate state investigation of improperly seizing property during raids in which no one was charged with a crime. The auditor said officers frequently failed to give required forfeiture notices when property was seized. The Strike Force was also accused of mishandling evidence and funds it seized.

The month the Strike Force was shut down, Zimmerman Reed filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims. In a 2010 settlement, Strike Force attorneys agreed to pay $3 million, with the money to go to victims and any residual funds to be spent on training police to avoid a recurrence of misconduct.

Of the 215 claimants who filed by the Dec. 30, 2010, deadline, more than 35 were minors at the time of their encounter with the unit, Cialkowski said. He said the Strike Force encounters generally involved home raids and stops of vehicles or individuals on foot.

He said that in roughly 25 of the cases, the Strike Force attorneys have acknowledged they are holding seized property such as a passport, keys, cellphone, computer or television.

"Some claimants allege they had a series of encounters with the [Strike Force] while others allege a single encounter," Cialkowski said. "Some allege physical abuse, including a hospitalization." He said there are also allegations of verbal abuse and racial slurs.

Flynn declined to discuss specifics, but said "there were instances where money was seized that needs to be returned."

Cialkowski said his office has discarded claims that clearly show the Strike Force was not the offending agency. But where there is conflicting information, such as a claimant who says property was seized and there is no police record of the incident, the case has been forwarded to Gehan.

"It is kind of laborious," Gehan said in an interview. "I originally thought I could do 10 [claims] a day. I can't." Claimants who disagree with the special master's decision can appeal their case to Ericksen.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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