Strike Force problems prompt review of seizure lawsby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota legislators say they will review the state's forfeiture laws in response to recent reports that found Metro Gang Strike Force members improperly took valuables and kept them for their personal use.
Forfeiture laws have long been controversial because they allow police departments to supplement their budgets with items seized in investigations. Some say the problem isn't with forfeiture laws, but with rogue cops who abuse their authority.
The report by a former federal prosecutor and a former FBI agent alleges officers took televisions, computers and jewelry seized during investigations for their personal use. DFL State Rep. Michael Paymar, who chairs the House Public Safety Finance Committee, said it's incumbent on the legislature to look at the state's forfeiture laws in the wake of the scandal.
"It's not just the gang strike forces that use the forfeiture statute, the DNR does, there are multiple agencies that will benefit from forfeiture statutes," Paymar said. "The question is whether this is good public policy; is this the way we should be funding law enforcement?"
A legal article once quoted the first President George Bush as saying forfeiture laws allow the government to take the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins and use them to put more cops on the streets. These federal and state laws go beyond drug and racketeering cases; they range from collecting assets in white-collar securities fraud to seizing cars of drunk drivers.
Strike Force officers are alleged to have seized items such as power tools, appliances and even an ice auger because the officers believed the individuals who owned them didn't "deserve" them.
The investigators' report said no professional law enforcement agency allows employees to take seized evidence home for their personal use or arrange for private sales, as strike force members allegedly did.
University of Minnesota law professor Stephen Simon said the problem wasn't with the forfeiture laws, the problem was with the strike force members who abused their authority.
"It's clear they weren't even thinking boy could we get in trouble here, what happens if we don't have records if the lid is lifted on this," Simon said. "It looks like it was just the practice to seize property without following the proper procedure and get everything they could get their hands on."
Simon said forfeiture laws require police to put property owners on notice that if they want to challenge the forfeiture, they need to do so within 60 days. It's then up to the property owners to take it from there. The burden is on them to prove the items weren't the proceeds from a crime or used in drug deals.
If they don't challenge the seizure, the government keeps the property.
One scholar who studies police accountability said that, in some cases, immigrants and other vulnerable people won't challenge forfeitures, and the police often know that.
Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska said that historically corruption has been concentrated in gang, drug and vice units because they tend to operate apart from the regular police force. He said asset forfeiture abuse goes hand in hand with a lack of police oversight.
Walker said even if the strike force no longer exists, there need to be permanent controls on specialized police units.
"Typically [in] vice units, drug units you've got officers working undercover so they're removed from a lot of the immediate controls but the temptations are just built into that assignment," Walker said. "You're doing drug arrests; you've got money and drugs sitting there on the table. It's very easy to skim some of it off and put it in your pocket. Who's going to know?"
The strike force investigators made a number of recommendations including: not using forfeitures as a significant way to fund law enforcement agencies, adopting new guidelines that would deter the type of conduct that occurred in the strike force, and possible changes to the forfeiture law.
Rep. Paymar and DFL Rep. Debra Hilstrom heads of the Public Safety Policy Committee say they will take up the question of revising Minnesota's forfeiture statute when the Legislature reconvenes in February.
- Morning Edition, 08/31/2009, 6:50 a.m.