Gang Strike Force abuses prompt scrutiny of seizure laws

Police in Minnesota can take and keep cash and property used in connection with some crimes. But the law that permits forfeitures is getting close scrutiny at the Capitol in the wake of the Gang Strike Force scandal.

Critics say it invites abuse and needs to be changed. Supporters say a few bad cops were ignoring what's already on the books.

At a legislative hearing on Thursday, more than a dozen people spoke about Minnesota's criminal forfeiture laws.

Those laws are now at the center of the efforts to clean up what went wrong with the 35-member gang unit. A handful of the strike force officers have been accused of confiscating money, computers, TVs and other property unconnected to crimes -- and even taking some of it for their own personal use.

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Some lawmakers are asking if the state's forfeiture laws invite such abuse.

"The concept of forfeiture was being misused because of lack of management or lack of oversight," said Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji. "To me that sort of begs the question. It's because we have this process in the law that that lack of management or oversight allowed this kind of thing to happen."

Adrian Ramiraz told lawmakers about an ill-fated visit to his brother one day in 2008.

He knew there was gang activity at his brother's house -- which he says didn't involve him. But when he came out, Ramiraz said police stopped him.

They threatened to arrest and deport him if he didn't snitch on gang members in the area. Ramiraz said he didn't know anything about them. But he said police weren't taking no for an answer.

He said they caught up with him a month later in his front yard in Crystal, as he was going to pick up his daughter.

"The task force person. He handcuffs me, beats me up, takes my keys away," Ramiraz said. "He goes into my house, then they didn't found nothing.

"So they released me the next week. And I went back to him. I told him 'Man, where's my stuff? Why didn't you charge me with nothing if you said you found something?' Cause they took everything. We couldn't go back to the house, because they even changed the locks."

Law enforcement officials defended the current system.

They said that in most places, forfeitures are above-board and reviewed by prosecutors to make sure they comply with the law. They called the Gang Strike Force case an anomoly and said seizures help them fight serious crime.

Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner has deputies working on a multi-agency drug task force in the St. Cloud area.

"Currently there are 23 drug and gang task forces operating in the state of Minnesota," he said. "The funding for those task forces varies. We rely on grant funding. We rely on forfeiture and seizure money to operate.

"If there are officers that are misuing these tools that are available to us, these officers have to be held accountable, because it's a black eye for everybody."

People at the hearing offered a variety of suggestions.

The state's association of county prosecutors handed out a list of voluntary rules to guide law enforcement on proper seizure procedures.

Defense attorneys read out loud the lengthy fine print it takes for someone to contest a seizure by police. They said the complicated process may make it practically impossible for someone to get property or money back, even if he is never charged with a crime.

State Sen. Julianne Ortmann, R-Chanhassen, said that would be a good place to start reform.

"Maybe we could work on simplifying this process, a separate, stand alone process that says, if law enforcement has seized your property, there's a quick speedy something that helps you get to an immediate hearing, and you don't have to go through all this stuff," she said.

But Howard Bass, an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Legislature has to rethink the whole process. The law now allows police to seize money or property first, then requires the owner to sue to get it back.

"Change the statute," he said, "so that within 60 days, a county attorney has to file a demand for judicial determination of forfeiture, instead of the property owner, and if the prosecutor doesn't do it, then its returned."

Lawmakers are planning at least three more hearings related to the Gang Strike Force this fall, and plan to ask the public to weigh in on the scandal as well.