Gang strike force fallout raises new questionsby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As the FBI continues its investigation into the now defunct Metro Gang Strike Force, questions linger about prosecutions related to those cases.
The Twin Cities unit was shut down last month after authorities determined problems with missing evidence and shoddy recordkeeping. While investigators say they haven't found any prosecutions that hang in the balance, the misconduct may have an affect on how jurors view police testimony in future cases.
When the special review panel announced Thursday that it found "appalling and outrageous" misconduct by police in the Minnesota Gang Strike Force, one of the major questions was whether those findings would scuttle any prosecutions in the pipeline.
Former federal prosecutor Andy Luger, who co-chaired the panel, said no, because the unit's investigations rarely led to prosecutions.
"I'm not aware of any case that would be jeopardized by our findings," Luger said. "Having reviewed the cases, we're not aware of any case that would have to be changed as a result of what we're finding. The vast majority of our findings relate to cases that were never prosecuted."
Even if there is such a case, at least one legal expert said it still wouldn't be an automatic out for a defendant. Much of the misconduct had to do with strike force employees seizing property for their personal use --property such as big-screen TVs, computers and watches. In some cases, those were items that criminal suspects stole that could've been returned to the original owners.
The report said in other cases, strike force officers had lawfully obtained search warrants but seized money and personal items that had no relation to the investigation at hand or could not be tied to criminal activity.
William Mitchell College of Law professor Brad Colbert said, in order for the strike force's misconduct to derail a prosecution, a defendant would have to show how that misconduct specifically relates to the case.
"If they catch you with 12 pounds of marijuana, you still have to prove that somehow the police misconduct is relevant to your defense," Colbert said. "One way that could come up is if you said, 'look, they got this without a search warrant or I didn't consent to the search so you want to get the drugs thrown out.'"
Colbert said that on the other hand, the strike force's misconduct could have a general negative effect on prosecutions.
He said typically jurors are more likely to believe police officers than defendants on the stand, even though jurors are supposed to view their testimony like anyone else's. He said now, some jurors who hear about the gang force's corruption may view police testimony in a different light.
"If you're defending someone and they're saying, 'look the cops are lying here' this makes it more believable to the jurors that maybe the cops are lying," Colbert said. "The classic of course is the O.J. Simpson case where they had evidence that the cop was a racist and then they used that to taint all the other police-obtained evidence."
The special review panel was created after the Minnesota Legislative Auditor's office found in May that the task force couldn't account for about $18,000 and more than a dozen vehicles.
No criminal charges against strike force members have been filed, and the names of officers included in the report haven't been released. Four Legislative committees meet next week to discuss the report.
- All Things Considered, 08/21/2009, 5:45 p.m.