Cars Behind Bars

If your vehicle is impounded as "evidence," look out

It was no surprise last Thursday when a Hennepin County grand jury decided not to indict the Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed Eric "Frank" Netters. After all, grand juries rarely press charges against cops. Besides, Netters played a leading role in his own demise.

The official story goes something like this. In the early morning hours of May 7, Netters--a 31-year-old Detroit native wanted for a probation violation on a drug conviction--was pulled over by police as he drove his fiancée's Ford Explorer down West Broadway. As officers prepared to place him under arrest, Netters decided to flee.

Unfortunately for all involved, he punched the accelerator with one officer, James Boyd, hanging from the door of the vehicle and another in the passenger seat. The cop in the passenger seat, Mark Bohnsack, fired his gun. Netters died at the scene. Boyd suffered a broken arm.

Given the circumstances, the grand jury's finding upholding the use of deadly force looked like a last formal footnote to another sad northside death. But it wasn't the end of the story--at least not for Georgia Fivecoat.

In addition to her lingering grief over her fiancé's unexpected death, Fivecoat was left to address a more practical concern: getting her truck back. As a mobile home health care worker and mother of three, both she and the people she cares for depend on Fivecoat's access to reliable transportation.

"Right after it happened, I asked a detective when I could have it," Fivecoat recalls. "He said they couldn't release it because it was a biohazard. You know, because of the blood. He said I'd have to hire a special company to clean it."

Then Fivecoat discovered that her "comprehensive" insurance policy probably wouldn't pay for any of the repairs to the vehicle. In a letter, the company, United Services Automobile Association, cited a clause in the policy that excludes coverage in the event of "war, insurrection, revolution, nuclear reaction, or radioactive contamination."

"With respect to exclusion number 4," the letter stated, "Mr. Netters was fleeing from the police and [that] may be considered an insurrection and there would be no coverage for the damage to your vehicle."

That puzzled Fivecoat. "I guess they thought Frank was trying to start a war, or something," she now muses.

And then there was more bad news. With the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department investigating the shooting, Fivecoat learned, her Explorer was deemed "evidence" and therefore could not be released until the case was officially closed.

As the grand jury proceeding was delayed month after month, Fivecoat grew frustrated. Commuting to work in the western suburbs in a borrowed and battered Olds Cutlass, she finally consulted a lawyer. "He said there isn't anything I can do," she says. "So I've been left making payments, which is $402 a month, plus insurance. I just can't see any reason why they had to retain the vehicle. They already got all the evidence out of it. They photographed it."

Yes, that's unfortunate, says sheriff's department spokeswoman Roseann Campagnoli, but also unavoidable. "A vehicle or any other personal property that is involved in a crime becomes part of the body of evidence, and evidence is usually maintained until the official conclusion of the case," she explains.

Indeed, the impoundment of vehicles on "police holds"--in other words, vehicles held as part of criminal investigations as opposed to, say, parking violation tow-aways--is an extremely common practice in Minneapolis. At the city impound lot, there are currently some 460 vehicles on police hold; in the past, there have been as many as 700.

Michael Friedman, an outreach worker with the Legal Rights Center (and the newly appointed chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority), says he routinely hears complaints about police practices involving impounded automobiles and other personal property. Sometimes, he says, the impounded property is held long after the investigations are completed. Other times it is used to gain leverage against the subject of those investigations.

"We find that police sometimes hold property and say, 'We're still investigating,' and the property becomes a means to coerce someone to forsake their constitutional rights and make a statement," Friedman observes.

Last Friday, the sheriff's department finally called Fivecoast: She can come pick up her Explorer anytime now.

It's not much solace. She still wants the vehicle back. But she could do without the memories of that night, and of her final, brief conversation with Netters, who called her on his cell phone immediately after he was stopped.

"He was telling me he knew the truck was going to be towed, and he was apologizing for that. He said, 'Just remember, I love you,'" Fivecoat says. "And I said, 'It's okay. We'll just go get it. It's no big deal.'"

 
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