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Dean Barkley, during the 2008 Senate campaign

Dean Barkley, during the 2008 Senate campaign

The other day I noticed a familiar name in the daily roster of lawsuits filed in Hennepin County. Dean Barkley was the plaintiff. The defendant: a 2005 GMC Envoy SUV.

Barkley served two months as a U.S. Senator in late 2002 after Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed him to serve out the term of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. Barkley most recently ran for Minnesota Supreme Court in 2012. Now why would Barkley be suing a motor vehicle?

That's how it works in the world of criminal forfeitures, in which the government confiscates cars, cash, jewelry, guns and other valuables that they contend have been used in crimes. To get their property back, people have to file a lawsuit and persuade a judge that their property did nothing wrong.

Since the Metro Gang Strike Force scandal five years ago gave a bad name to police taking people's stuff, the Legislature has restricted the power of forfeiture. This session, the Legislature nearly unanimously passed a bill to require a criminal conviction for the forfeiture of property.

Barkley's ordeal started in April, he told me. He had lent the vehicle for a day to a relative to haul some tires. That relative was driving the GMC SUV when he got pulled over on Interstate 394, and Golden Valley police charged him with DWI and drug possession. They also seized the vehicle.

When Barkley went down to police headquarters, he was informed that they intended to keep the vehicle permanently under forfeiture laws. Barkley, who's an attorney, was appalled.

Barkley has one distinct advantage: lawyer friends who will take his case on pro bono. Normally, it would cost about $5,000 to hire a lawyer to fight a forfeiture, making it pointless to do so if your property is worth less than that.

One of his attorneys, Philip Villaume, said the Golden Valley police have not violated any policies by refusing to give up the car so far, but he said he expects that as an innocent owner, Barkley will win it back in court - eventually. How long will that take? About three months, he said.

Barkley said he did not think much about forfeiture law in his political days, but he's thinking about it now. "It goes against every constitutional concept that I studied in law school. If somebody is guilty of something, fine. This way they presume you're guilty... I think it's screwy. I think it's completely backwards."