Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pirates in blue III

Alternate title: License to steal

This is the third post in a series. Here’s part one and part two.

I recommended that readers review the complaint prepared against the Metro Strike Force by attorneys for some of its victims: Rivera v. Metro Gang Strike Force. The Strike Force described in the complaint resembles more Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist — only without the charm — than it does a law enforcement agency: brutal, rapacious thugs.

In the Strib article about the joint legislative hearing on the forfeiture statutes held last week in St. Paul (briefly discussed in part one), sheriffs and police officers pleaded for the statute’s life:

"It isn't the statute that's failed," said Apple Valley police Capt. Michael Marben. "It's the lack of accountability."

It was a theme sounded by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, the police chief of Lake Crystal, who advised colleagues not to overhaul the statute.

Well, not exactly, Capt. Marben. Minn. Stat. sec. 609.5314 permits the administrative forfeiture of, inter alia, all money, precious metal, and precious stones, and any “conveyance device” (that’s a vehicle to the uninitiated) found in “proximinity to” controlled substances. There’s more to it than that, but it’s enough to understand some of the more common tactics of the Metro Gang Strike Force.

Armed with the color of law of 609.5314, Strike Force Officers could go out and pick a person clean for the lowest street-level drug offense or even being in proximity to it:

Is that marijuana I smell? Gimme your wallet, your watch, and your diamond engagement ring!

But officer, I’m not smoking marijuana. I don’t have any drugs on me!

Doesn’t matter. You’re obviously in proximity to drug activity. Now hand ‘em over.

And what is “proximity” you may ask? One is tempted to answer: same zip code. From reading the complaint in the Strike Force case, and from other published media reports, it appears that a favorite Strike Force tactic was to enter an apartment, often without a warrant, detain the residents in one room while another officer or officers rifled through other rooms for cash and valuables. Sometimes they prepared an inventory of what they took, sometimes an incomplete one, and sometimes no inventory was prepared at all. And controlled substances often seemed beside the point.

Some of these characters made simple snatch and run robbers and residential burglars look positively amateurish.

But let’s return to accountability. Here’s what defendant and former Strike Force commander Ron Ryan said about his officers’ conduct, from the Rivera complaint:

Defendant Ryan was aware that MGSF Officers were committing theft of personal property and did nothing to prevent it.  When confronted by improper “forfeitures” by MGSF Officers, by the Office of the Legislative  Auditor, Ryan testified that it was known “copper mentality” to take unlawfully the property of suspects, or “mopes,” who appeared to have nicer things in their home or on their person than the police officers had.  He asserted that “coppers like to take as much as they can, that’s just the nature of the beast.”  Defendant Ryan also identified the fact that “illegal aliens” do not “ask for anything back anymore” as a reason why the MGSF was amassing so much cash and property.

Stunning, isn’t it? The Strike Force officers didn’t worry much about accountability to Commander Ryan. Ryan’s statement about the “copper mentality” is telling, too. Let’s assume he’s truthful here for a moment. If that is the “copper mentality,” then it very much is the statute that has failed, because it provides means and opportunity to cops who already have the motive to steal.

And as Rebecca Otto, the state’s top auditor pointed out in the hearing, the Treasurer’s office has limited ability to oversee the forfeiture “program.” Well none, really, when what’s going on is simple theft.

We’ll end for today with another groaner from the hearing:

At the legislative hearing, sheriffs and police defended the law, saying it provided money for law enforcement training and equipment. They portrayed the Gang Strike Force problems as isolated.

There is another word for training, certainly in the business world, and that’s what the forfeiture enterprise is beginning to resemble more and more; that word is “junket.” One question all these law enforcement leaders should have been asked at the hearing was,”How many seminars in warm places and adjacent to golf courses have you taken on forfeiture money?”

The answers would have been interesting.

There’ll be a couple of more posts before we’re done.

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