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Dagoberto Rodriguez Cardona has spent the last nine months wondering if he will ever recover the $4,500 in cash he claims was taken by a Metro Gang Strike Force officer with no explanation.
On Wednesday, Cardona, who has not been charged with any crime connected to the money, filed a lawsuit contending that authorities have never given him a chance to prove that he had earned the money at a painting job.
Chris Omodt, who became commander of the Strike Force on Jan. 20, acknowledged that officers seized money July 31 from someone at the Minneapolis impound lot, where Cardona had gone to reclaim his girlfriend's car.
"During the course of the investigation the strike force seized evidence of more than $4,000 cash from one individual," Omodt said in an email to the Star Tribune. "The seized evidence was logged into and secured in the Strike Force evidentiary system."
He offered no other details. Asked why the money hasn't been returned, Joseph Flynn, the Strike Force attorney, declined further comment.
"They took my money from working hard," Cardona said through a translator. "I am fighting this because of a just reason."
The office of James Nobles, the state legislative auditor, which is conducting an audit of the Strike Force, appears to be looking at the kind of issues raised in the suit.
While declining to comment on the suit, Nobles said, "We are looking at anything that they bring in from a seizure, how well it's secured and whether it's properly handled."
The handling of seized money has become a contentious issue for the Strike Force. In a letter in March to Bud Shaver, chairman of the Strike Force advisory board, Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek cited problems with "recordkeeping, documentation and evidence storage".
No arrest or receipt
The lawsuit filed in Hennepin County District Court alleges the officers "did not provide any receipt, inventory, or any paperwork" for Cardona's money.
Cardona said the money was part of an $8,000 payment that he was supposed to split with three other workers. His lawyer, Phillip Fishman, showed documentation from the man who paid Cardona and from the check-cashing firm he used.
Yaneth Ochoa, his girlfriend, got her car around 9 p.m., but another group of immigrants there asked them for help.
Five plainclothes officers arrived and ordered the entire group to put their hands up. Cardona said an officer searched him, found the $4,500, held it up, and said, "Oh, money."
Three witnesses, including Ochoa, said they saw the officer hold up the money but did not see him place it on the car with the group's cell phones and wallets.
"I said 'Hey, that's my money from work' and he said 'Oh, that's your money?' and he just put it in his pocket," Cardona said.
The suit said no drugs were found and that taking Cardona's money without legal cause violates the state Constitution.
Tony Bouza, retired Minneapolis police chief, said it appears the Strike Force violated the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures without probable cause.
Police agencies are allowed to keep seized money and property after a court finds the items have been tied to certain criminal offenses and orders them forfeited. The Strike Force has recently come under scrutiny for a trip taken by six of its investigators in March to attend a six-day Asian gang enforcement conference in Hawaii. The Strike Force's advisory board approved using forfeited money to pay for the trip, which cost $16,800.
Immigration agents arrived
The suit also alleges that some city employees, including lot workers and officers, violated a Minneapolis ordinance that prohibits them from asking about immigration status unless the law requires it.
The officers asked the group whether "they were all illegal," Cardona said. Ochoa had a permit to be in the country, but Cardona, a native of Honduras, didn't. Police turned him over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who began deportation proceedings. He has posted bond and is waiting for a federal immigration hearing.
Asked if the Strike Force called ICE that night, Omodt said in his email statement: "The (Strike Force) has close working relationships with a number of agencies, including ICE, to foster effective information sharing and investigations of crimes that cross jurisdictions and national boundaries."
Strike Force officers were at the impound lot as part of a drug investigation, Omodt said. Ochoa said she had lent her car to a friend a few days before the incident. A Minneapolis police report shows the friend was arrested and the car impounded because he did not have a valid driver's license, but officers later found .2 grams of suspected cocaine on him. The Hennepin County attorney's office declined to charge the friend.
Fishman questioned why Cardona wasn't arrested if the car was part of a drug investigation. Ochoa said she was allowed to take the car from the lot that night.
The city attorney's office declined to comment on the pending suit, which also names the city and Police Chief Tim Dolan. Fishman said he will also try to identify as defendants Strike Force members, police officers and lot employees on duty during the seizure.
The suit seeks return of the money, with interest, plus more than $50,000 in damages and attorney fees.
In a March 31 letter to Fishman, the city attorney's office denied the lawsuit's claim "because, among other reasons, the matter referenced in your claim was not an operation of the Minneapolis Police Department." Records show that two Minneapolis squad cars arrived around 10:19 p.m. to assist the gang unit at the lot.
Nobles said the legislative auditor's report will be issued in about three weeks. He declined to discuss the report's findings so far.