Feds announce strategy to combat carjackings, other violent crime in the Twin Cities

The strategy includes prosecuting suspected adult carjackers under federal law


By Nick Ferraro
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s new U.S. attorney said Tuesday his office will refocus the effort to combat violent crime in the Twin Cities by adding more resources as well as charging and prosecuting suspected adult carjackers at the federal level.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger was joined by several federal and local law enforcement officials, including the police chiefs of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in announcing what his office called the “federal violent crime strategy.”

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, left, and Minneapolis Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman listen as U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, right, speaks in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, left, and Minneapolis Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman listen as U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, right, speaks in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (John Autey)

“Every Minnesotan deserves the right to live safely and securely without fear of shootings, carjackings and violence,” Luger said from the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.

Luger, who was sworn into his position March 30, said he is “refocusing the entire office around the effort to combat violent crime.” Starting now, he said, every federal prosecutor will add violent crime cases in addition to their other work. The attorney’s office will also add anywhere from five to eight additional prosecutors “who will join this fight,” he said. The office currently has 42 criminal prosecutors.

The expanded resources will allow the office to prosecute adult carjacking suspects, Luger said, and not juveniles “for now.”

Federal law enforcement and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will bring all adult carjacking cases to federal prosecutors and “as long as they fit our statute,” he said, “we will prosecute them under federal law.” Convicted carjackers will serve time in federal prison.

Luger said while he is “acutely aware” that prosecution and incarceration “are not the sole tool for reducing violent crime, it is a critical component.”

‘PLAGUE OF VIOLENCE’

Carjackings used to be a rare enough occurrence that law enforcement would not even track them apart from robberies or auto thefts. But as the numbers surged, departments began keeping separate tallies.

And the numbers are grim. St. Paul had 55 reported carjackings in 2019, 73 in 2020 and 101 last year. Minneapolis had over 650 carjackings in 2021.

They’re happening in cities across the metro area and sometimes in broad daylight, leaving victims and communities traumatized, Luger said.

“What we’re seeing are brutal attacks on men and on women with children in the backseat,” he said. “Organized, premeditated organizations are engaging in this kind of activity. They’re taking people’s money out of their cellphone accounts, taking people’s credit cards. And they’re changing people’s lives. And it has to stop.”

Luger said the effort also prioritizes the prosecution of illegal gun crimes, including the recent spate of cases involving “auto sears,” or “switches,” that convert pistols to fully automatic weapons; the illegal possession of firearms and/or ammunition; firearms trafficking cases; and “straw purchasing” on the black market.

“We already prosecute many illegal gun cases in this office,” he said. “Under this new strategy, we will prosecute far more.”

A new gang prosecution team will work directly with law enforcement in addressing gang violence that Luger said is “plaguing the metro.”

“We cannot allow this plague of violence to continue,” he said. “Therefore, we approach this task with urgency and enjoined together to provide leadership to combat violent crime.”

‘YOU WILL BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE’

Michael Paul, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI field office, said they are working with local law enforcement agencies to find armed robbers and seek prosecution under the Hobbs Act.

The Hobbs Act is commonly used by federal prosecutors to increase the penalties of a specific type of crime. Prosecutors need only prove that the natural consequences of the offense would have an effect on interstate commerce.

“To those who are committing these senseless acts of violence, we will find you, we will take you off the street and you will be held accountable,” Paul said.

ATF Special Agent in Charge William McCrary, who has led the agency’s St. Paul field office since last year, said felons and other people who are prohibited from possessing firearms still somehow manage to circumvent the system and acquire one or more.

“The full support of the U.S. attorney’s office will help us secure prosecution needed to remove the violent offenders from the streets and away from the hardworking people in our community,” he said.

‘FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAS A ROLE TO PLAY’

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said he’s met with Luger about his plans.

“We need more leadership like his to combat the crime trends,” Fletcher said Tuesday.

He said he expects word will travel quickly among those involved in crime and will “have a huge impact on the violence culture.”

At the same time, Fletcher said there are shortages of officers in most places.

“That’s hurting our ability to actually solve crime … because, in order to bring federal prosecutions, we actually have to arrest offenders,” Fletcher said. “It takes personnel to conduct investigations.”

Former Minnesota U.S. Attorney Rachel Kunjummen Paulose commended Luger and his office on Tuesday, saying the effort recognizes that violent crime in the Twin Cities is “out of control and the federal government has a role to play in addressing the crime spike.”

“My experience with our federal law enforcement agencies, including the ATF, FBI and DEA — that will be critical to this initiative’s success — is that they rise to every challenge,” said Kunjummen Paulose, now a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “I am hopeful this initiative will bring about needed change.”

Mara H. Gottfried contributed to this report.

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