A plan to start a telephone hot line next week for victims of the Metro Gang Strike Force to call to get back their property and cash is drawing considerable fire and could trigger a battle in U.S. District Court.

The Minnesota office of the American Civil Liberties Union said that the state should contact potential victims, not make the victims call first.

And a lawyer suing the Strike Force on behalf of alleged victims said the hot-line plan disrespects the judicial process, and he plans to take up the matter in Federal Court. He said people who believe they were wronged should get a lawyer, not call the hot line.

A preliminary investigation this summer found that some Strike Force members improperly seized cash and property and took some property home for their own use. The FBI is investigating. Two former Strike Force members have been suspended, one has been fired, and 11 others face internal affairs investigations by the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments.

Critics say many victims of the Strike Force's misconduct are illegal immigrants who fear deportation and would be reluctant to call a hot line. Others, they say, will fear facing charges, such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, even though they were not arrested when their property or cash was seized.

Debate over process

The hot-line number, 651-209-2673, was set up Friday by the League of Minnesota Cities Trust Fund, the Force's insurance company. Officials defend the approach.

"This has nothing to do with criminal charges against individuals or checking into their immigration status," said Strike Force attorney Joe Flynn. "It is simply a process by which their property can be restored to these individuals in a prompt matter."

The league says hot-line callers don't waive their rights to sue, don't need a lawyer to contact the hot line, and can appeal at no cost to an administrative law judge without a lawyer.

"The process was cooperatively developed by the Department of Public Safety, Minnesota attorney general's office, the League and [the] advisory board of the Metro Gang Strike Force," said Doug Gronli, the trust fund's claims manager, in a news release. "The process is proactive, transparent and cost-efficient."

The debate over the hot line follows a report issued by former assistant U.S. attorney Andrew Luger, appointed by state Public Commissioner Michael Campion, to investigate the Strike Force. Luger recommended a special master be named to return improperly seized property and cash. Campion endorsed the idea but said later he lacked legal authority to made the appointment.

"The commissioner is aware there may be challenges ahead with what promises to be a complicated process, but given the complexities of the situation and his lack of authority to appoint a special master, the commissioner feels this is the best option available at this time," said Andy Skoogman, Campion's spokesman.

Another suggestion

Randy Hopper, an attorney for six clients who say they were victims of illegal seizures, calls the hot line an "end run of the judicial process." He is seeking to make his suit against the Strike Force a class action and recently expanded it to include as defendants government bodies who supplied Strike Force members.

Hopper said a federal judge should appoint an impartial special master to oversee what will be given back to victims and how it will be done.

He said he recommended a special master to Flynn in a letter. Flynn said Hopper's letter did not spell out what a special master would do under the rules. Hopper says that is untrue.

Hopper said it is not in the interest of people whose constitutional rights were violated to phone the force's insurance company. "I'm going to take steps judicially to enforce my clients' rights," he said, but he declined to give details.

Down on the hot line

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the state Civil Liberties Union, and Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented clients against the Strike Force, say they, too, disagree with the hot-line approach.

"Given the scale of misconduct described in the Luger report, there is an affirmative obligation [on the part of] the task force to contact persons who have had their property improperly seized," Nestor said.

Kori Land, a Strike Force attorney, said that there is no prohibition against the league settling claims whether or not there is a suit, and the court has not certified it as a class yet. She said the trust fund planned to call about 60 people who previously called the Public Safety Department about improperly seized property, but it would be too difficult to go through all the files, and contact people to give it back to them.

"We estimate that there are 8,000 police reports," she said. "That would take years for a special master or even a team of special masters to get through."

She also said that a special master would not come free. The league, however, is not charging anyone for the process it's using, so the $1 million in seized funds in the Strike Force's accounts can be used to pay potential claims, she said.

Hamline University law professor Joseph Daly says that using a special master is the best approach because many of the alleged victims of improper seizures would be "fearful of police, fearful of government power." Still he said the hot-line idea "is not completely wrong," because the League is "at least trying to get the money back to people."

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382