A state law allowing police acting on their own to seize property from suspects -- often without getting warrants -- is unfair and should be overhauled, defense attorneys told legislators Thursday.

"This creates a potential for abuse," said lawyer Howard Bass. "There's no checks and balances."

His testimony came before legislative committees on public safety investigating the state's seizure and forfeiture law after allegations that the Metro Gang Strike Force improperly used it to seize money, cars and property.

Although Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said legislators weren't ready to hear recommendations for changes, they got some.

Bass said the government should have to prove the property was related to a crime and deserved to be seized. Currently, property can be forfeited in an administrative procedure unless the owner demands a court hearing within 60 days of its seizure.

And the court process is complicated. Property owners need to serve proper notice on the police agency and follow court rules of civil procedure and discovery.

Sometimes people who have not been charged with a crime don't challenge seizures because it would cost more in attorney fees than the property is worth, said Tom Plunkett, an attorney with the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Also, people challenging seizures in civil court waive protections against self-incrimination, exposing themselves to charges.

A man testified that the Strike Force took his truck and $4,000 in 2006 in connection with a drug investigation even though he wasn't charged. Terrance Frelix of Minneapolis said he tried to get it back, but, "to this date, I still haven't received anything."

Adrian Ramiraz testified that the Strike Force seized his house in Crystal in 2008, though he, too, wasn't charged. He said he hasn't been able to recover it.

Hilstrom assured police and sheriffs in the room that the committee didn't intend to "paint a broad brush picture" of how the seizure and forfeiture law has been used.

Changes in statute urged

Still, activities by other police units have raised broader questions about the law itself.

A judge recently ordered Edina police to return an SUV to a woman after they seized the vehicle when her son was charged with driving it while impaired. Authorities held it for five months and said their actions were legal.

Her lawyer has called for changes in the statute.

At the legislative hearing, sheriffs and police defended the law, saying it provided money for law enforcement training and equipment. They portrayed the Gang Strike Force problems as isolated.

"It isn't the statute that's failed," said Apple Valley police Capt. Michael Marben. "It's the lack of accountability."

It was a theme sounded by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, the police chief of Lake Crystal, who advised colleagues not to overhaul the statute.

Another legislator suggested problems with the Gang Strike Force could have been detected with better enforcement of a provision of the law requiring police agencies to report all seizures to the state auditor's office. Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, pressed Auditor Rebecca Otto on why her office didn't disclose that the Gang Strike Force and other units failed to comply with the reporting requirement.

Otto replied that the statute doesn't give her office authority to enforce the requirement and that her office has never reported agencies that failed to comply with it. But she said she'd be willing to do so in the future.

Patrick Doyle • 651-222-1210