Forfeiture law questioned after gang force misuse

  • Article by: RANDY FURST
  • Star Tribune
  • August 26, 2009 - 10:36 PM

The Metro Gang Strike Force improperly used Minnesota's forfeiture laws to seize money, cars and other property, and the Legislature should review those laws in its upcoming session, more than 20 members of the Minnesota House and Senate were told during a joint hearing Wednesday at the State Capitol.

Michael Campion, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, said he asked Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin to appoint a special master to begin reviewing and returning improperly seized and/or forfeited cash, property and vehicles. The disbanded Strike Force still has about $1 million in seized funds in three bank accounts.

"We need something far different than the Metro Gang Strike Force," Andy Luger, a former federal prosecutor told legislators in outlining the findings of his three-month investigation into the disbanded task force. He first made those findings public last Thursday.

Minnesota State Auditor Jim Nobles said that while the FBI has yet to disclose the results of its investigation into possible criminal behavior by members of the Strike Force, the last chapter may be written by the Legislature, which will have to grapple with the reasons that led to the implosion of the anti-gang unit.

According to several officials who testified at Wednesday's hearing, officials on two oversight boards provided insufficient oversight, and some board members resisted efforts to investigate the wrongdoing.

In response, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, Minn., suggested the answer could be better supervision of law enforcement officers rather than a change in the law. He expressed fear that the changes might be overly restrictive to police. Luger said he had not made recommendations in his report for revising legislation, but suggested legislators may want to tweak the law to prevent abuse.

Minnesota law currently says property seized in connection with the seizure of illegal drugs may be kept by police after the owners have been notified of the seizure and given a chance to appeal the forfeiture.

Proper notices not given

In his investigation of the strike force, Nobles said, he could not find evidence that proper notices were given to 202 people out of 545 seizures examined by his office. "The rights of citizens were not being upheld," he said.

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, questioned how many items were legally forfeited and how many were not. Nobles said he did not know, noting there were more than 5,000 files at Strike Force headquarters in New Brighton.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who chaired the hearing, said afterward that the four legislative committees that conducted the hearing will look at the forfeiture and seizure statutes and policies regarding stand-alone task forces "to make sure this doesn't happen again." She said there will either be more hearings this fall or in February when the Legislature reconvenes. In the meantime, the committees will be gathering more information on the issues.

Also Wednesday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered his assessment of the Strike Force's problems.

"The Gang Strike Force is a mess," he said. "It was not just lack of proper government structures around it. The people involved also just didn't use common sense. There isn't a great mystery around cops not taking stuff home and using it for personal use. We don't need to have a new law that says: 'When you arrest somebody, you don't take their stuff and take it home and use it.'"

Campion said that although he knows of no similar misconduct at other state task forces, he will hire an experienced law enforcement auditor to conduct annual site visits to all 23 drug and gang task forces. He also said he was going to hold a meeting of law enforcement officials on how they believed gangs would be combatted. He said he is cognizant that it is the Legislature that has funded the Strike Force, and promised he will create no new organizational structure without legislators' approval. He said it would not look like the Strike Force.

"In hindsight, I believe now we gave the Metro Gang Strike Force and its two oversight bodies too many chances," he said. "This is a very sad time for law enforcement and the criminal justice system," Campion told the legislators. "I feel for those law-enforcement personnel [who are innocent of wrongdoing] who are now under a cloud of suspicion."

At a news conference last Thursday, and again Wednesday, Luger said he believed some Strike Force members committed a crime by taking home seized property for their personal use. He has not publicly disclosed the implicated Strike Force employees, but other sources have told the Star Tribune they come from the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments and the Ramsey County sheriff's office.

Three ways to fight gangs

Luger offered three possible models for a new mechanism to fight gangs. The first would have the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) coordinate information about criminals and prosecutions, but the anti-gang work would be centered in local law-enforcement units. A second model would have a multi-jurisdictional task force housed within a local law enforcement agency. (The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office is coordinating anti-gang efforts in a new initiative with police departments within the county.)

A third possibility would have a strike force housed at the BCA and administered by the BCA, Luger said. He said all three models were better than the current Strike Force, which was a stand-alone agency.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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