Gang Strike Force victims reach $3M settlementby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — The agencies behind the disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force will pay $3 million to people who claim they were victims of the unit's misconduct.
The settlement announced Wednesday comes a year after the state investigated the unit and later shut it down.
One of the plaintiffs is painter Dagoberto Rodriguez Cardona. A couple of years ago, Rodriguez, his wife and a couple of his co-workers went to retrieve his car from the Minneapolis impound lot.
But getting has vehicle towed turned out to be the least of his problems.
While Rodriguez was at the impound lot, waiting to retrieve his car, members of the Metro Gang Strike Force showed up. They searched him and found $4,500 in cash.
"And they said, 'Why do you have all this money?'" Rodriguez recalled. "'It's from work. We were coming from work,'" he said he told the officers.
"I have my machine, my painting machine, and my gallons of paint. They only laughed and said, there's money. And they taunted us. And they called their boss, and so their boss took my money."
The officers never found any drugs, and did not arrest Rodriguez, he said. And they never gave the money back.
Rodriguez's attorney, Randy Hopper, says that's a prime example of what went wrong with the Metro Gang Strike Force. He filed a federal class action lawsuit last year against a dozen police agencies that sent more than 30 officers to work with the unit, based in New Brighton.
"Our job was to represent the folks, the innocent people that were hit buy this task force, to try and make them whole again," said Hopper. "The focus of this lawsuit, which was to hold accountable the errant and the run-amok strike force ... was also to hold the government accountable."
Hopper said at a Minneapolis press conference that he's reached a deal with attorneys representing a coalition of the cities who participated in the defunct unit.
They'll pay $3 million to settle claims of wrongdoing and improper seizure, and to fund statewide police training to keep similar misconduct from happening again.
It's unknown how many people will be eligible to receive a piece of the settlement. Hopper says it could be more than 100. Attorneys will set up a telephone hotline, an e-mail address and eventually a website for any potential victims of the strike force to claim part of the settlement.
A state audit last year found that the task force couldn't account for thousands of dollars in cash and more than a dozen vehicles it had seized.
A subsequent investigation by a former federal prosecutor and retired FBI agent found more misconduct.
They said strike force officers had taken seized property, such as televisions and sporting equipment, for their own use. They found officers had been snooping improperly through police files, and may have been shaking down illegal immigrants, thinking the victims wouldn't report police misconduct for fear of deportation.
Another attorney for Rodriguez says that's what happened at the Minneapolis impound lot in 2008. Phillip Fishman said his client is facing deportation after the strike force turned him into immigration authorities.
Fishman said the scandal may actually provide Rodriguez a path to citizenship -- since illegal immigrants who are victims of a crime may qualify to stay in the U.S. under certain circumstances.
"In this case, there was the illegal restraint by the police without probable cause at the impound lot," said Fishman. "And then the obstruction of justice, when basically the police would call immigration and ICE to have him put in proceedings, and maybe kicked out of the country, prior to this coming to the surface."
State authorities have disbanded the strike force. An FBI spokesman says an investigation is ongoing and that the Hennepin County Attorney's office is also looking into the case.
The settlement announced Wednesday didn't concede any wrongdoing on the part of the strike force. It was reached with a trust fund set up by the League of Minnesota Cities to insure municipalities and their police forces.
An attorney for the trust fund said he expects the settlement will effectively close the book on civil claims against the strike force if it is approved by a federal judge, as expected.
- All Things Considered, 08/25/2010, 5:24 p.m.