Smart Democrats Don’t Let The GOP Own Civil Asset Forfeiture

UPDATE: ACLU of Colorado urges Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign HB17-1313:

The Colorado Legislature came together in 2017 to pass a bill reforming civil asset forfeiture (HB 1313), but Governor Hickenlooper is being pressured by police and sheriffs to veto it.

HB 1313 brings civil asset forfeiture into the light of day by increasing transparency into police forfeiture activities. Under HB 1313, officers will have to detail to the public when they use civil asset forfeiture and tell what was taken and what ultimately happened to the property. Law enforcement will also have to report if the person from whom the property was taken was ever charged with or convicted of a crime.

The bill also closes a loophole in state law that police have used extensively to bypass state-level due process protections by teaming up with federal agencies and seizing property under federal law.

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Rep. Leslie Herod (D).

As the Denver Post’s Jesse Paul reports, Gov. John Hickenlooper is under pressure to veto a bill regulating civil asset forfeiture by police agencies–a controversial issue that local Republicans have identified in recent years as good political ground to grandstand on:

Law enforcement and local government groups across Colorado say hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in crime-fighting dollars could be lost if Gov. John Hickenlooper signs legislation that changes how officers and sheriff’s deputies seize money and property suspected of being tied to illegal activity.

Supporters of House Bill 1313 say the measure would add accountability to the controversial practice, called civil asset forfeiture, and better protect Coloradans’ rights to due process. Opponents say that while they support aspects of the bill that add oversight, the money that could be siphoned away would curtail important law enforcement investigations — and they want the legislation vetoed.

“I think this is a solution looking for a problem,” said Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey, who is among the top law enforcement officials in the state urging Hickenlooper to reject the legislation. “I don’t think our senators and our representatives understand.”

It’s generally agreed that Colorado laws on civil asset forfeiture by police are somewhat more honest than horror stories that have been profiled in other states. With that said, the fact that assets can be seized, distributed and spent by Colorado police agencies with no criminal charges being filed against the individual whose property is seized, or charges being dismissed but the seized assets never being returned, is a serious problem that legislators in both parties in Colorado have tried to solve in recent years. Prosecutors say the law requires them to file the civil suit to seize assets before the criminal case is resolved, while defendants complain they either aren’t notified about the civil suit or have no means of defending themselves from one.

And when the system has such a conflict, it’s the little guy who loses his property.

It should be noted that a lot of the pressure to reform civil asset forfeiture in Colorado in recent years has come from Republicans. Ex-Sen. Laura Woods of Arvada in particular made reform of asset forfeiture laws a major issue. Other Republicans have highlighted the problem as an example of government overreach and abuse of power. In 2017, freshman Rep. Leslie Herod took up the issue in the Colorado General Assembly, and is the prime House sponsor of House Bill 17-1313.

This legislation would not reform the civil asset forfeiture system in Colorado to the extent activists on the issue would prefer. The bill would require better reporting by police agencies on asset forfeiture and require that small-dollar forfeiture cases use a more rigorous state procedure than the more permissive federal law. It would lead to a better understanding of how asset forfeiture is used in Colorado, and set the stage for reducing abuse of the program in the future.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, said lawmakers worked with district attorneys and other stakeholders to create the legislation. There were just a handful of “no” votes for the bill and Herod — one of the legislation’s main proponents — called it “extremely frustrating” that there is so much opposition now.

She also noted that the bill’s legislative process included testimony from people about problems with forfeiture process in Colorado and added that the legislation has public support, including from people who have sent notes to Hickenlooper urging him to make it law.

Politically, this is an issue that could be very advantageous to politicians who come down on the side of not taking property from innocent people. Defenders of law enforcement run into trouble very quickly trying to explain how residents can lose their property without being charged with a crime, and resort to threats of harm done from loss of these seized assets to law enforcement programs as a way to justify the status quo.

But if the money is not rightfully theirs, it doesn’t matter what it’s spent on. To voters this is a no-brainer.

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