After hearing hours of testimony Thursday about how state forfeiture laws are supposed to work, many legislators had vanished by the time two citizens spoke of their problems after police seized their property.
One of them was Terrance Frelix Sr., 34, of Minneapolis. He and a business partner owned some properties and were running behind on a mortgage in 2006, Frelix testified at a hearing. His partner borrowed $4,000 and had just given Frelix the money when a Metro Gang Strike Force officer took them in for questioning.
Police released them without charging them with a crime. The strike force later informed Frelix they were forfeiting the cash and Frelix's truck.
Frelix had been outside his vehicle when police swooped in and -- unbeknownst to him, he said -- a relative was smoking a marijuana joint inside. Police said the small amount of marijuana was the reason they were forfeiting the property.
Frelix went to court but hasn't gotten his property back. He said he's still out the $4,000, plus $3,500 in attorney's fees. His truck is gone, along with the property management equipment inside.
"Even to this day, I'm still frustrated," he said after Thursday's hearing.
Earlier in the hearing, legislators had been walked through flow charts and other documents explaining how the state's forfeiture laws work.
After hearing Frelix's account, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the information about what was happening on the streets was "nowhere near what happens on the flow chart."
Thursday marked the fourth joint legislative committee hearing held in the wake of the Metro Gang Strike Force's demise.
An independent review of the now-defunct strike force, released in August, found some officers seized money and property from people never accused of a crime, then took the property for personal use. The FBI is investigating.
The August report said some gang strike force members felt they needed to obtain forfeiture funds to keep the multi-agency task force running after its budget was cut.
The review panel recommended the Legislature "examine whether Minnesota's current forfeiture statute should be revised to provide more protections against the type of conduct described in this report." Legislators heard about how the law works, but Thursday's hearing wasn't intended to cover suggested changes.
In basic terms, under state law, police can seize all money, guns, cars, "precious metals, and precious stones" found in proximity to drugs, drug manufacturing or distribution operations. The property can be seized without drug-or gang-related criminal charges filed against the owner.
The law requires property owners be notified within 60 days of their right to try to get their property back through "judicial determination." If the owner files no claim within that time, the property is considered unclaimed and it's forfeited.
A legislative auditor's report on the gang strike force released in May found the gang unit couldn't document that it had served seizure notices in 202 of 545 cash seizures that auditors tested. Frelix told legislators he wasn't initially served notice and that his attorney had to discover where his property was.
Because it is a civil statute, citizens who challenge forfeiture must prove they acquired the property through legal means.
Police and prosecutors told legislators Thursday about safeguards they take to ensure property is properly seized and forfeited.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, questioned whether the forfeiture laws needed to be changed if law enforcement is given proper training and current statutes are followed.
"Do we need to overhaul everything?" asked Cornish, who is the Lake Crystal police chief.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said, "If there are officers that are misusing these tools ... either intentionally or unintentionally, they have got to be held accountable because it's a black eye for everyone in law enforcement."
But he continued by asking legislators to consider that the "overwhelming majority of task forces" are doing things correctly and said sweeping legislative reform would be "unwarranted and damaging."
One problem with the administrative forfeiture process, as was evidenced by the problems with the Metro Gang Strike Force, is it "puts too much authority and too much discretion into the hands of
law enforcement officers," said Howard Bass, American Civil Liberties
of Minnesota board member. Because there are no real checks and
balances, "this creates a potential for abuse," he said.
Because forfeitures are a civil matter, public defenders aren't assigned to such cases. Many people can't afford to hire private attorneys; if they can, attorneys' fees can "vastly ... exceed" the value of property taken, Bass said.
Mara H. Gottfried
October 29, 2009
St. Paul Pioneer Press