Updating one of the final lingering points of contention from this year’s legislative session, as the Denver Post’s Jesse Paul reports:
The ACLU of Colorado has sent a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper urging him to sign a bill that changes how officers and sheriff’s deputies seize money and property suspected of being tied to illegal activity, saying he should not “stand in the way of bipartisan reform.”
“Civil asset forfeiture reform passed the legislature by a combined vote of 81 to 19. It was supported by Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, progressives and just about everyone in between,” wrote Denise Maes, the group’s public policy director. “Coloradans want and deserve stronger protections when property is taken by police…”
“Opponents argue that House Bill 1313 will make crime-fighting more difficult because if there are less forfeiture actions under federal law, local law enforcement agencies will get less money and, therefore, not be able to fight crime,” Maes said. “This position is untenable and frankly, I’m surprised this argument is asserted with such vigor.”
But as the Pueblo Chieftain’s Ryan Severance reports, police agencies are arguing exactly that:
“If the governor does not veto this bill, it will have an adverse impact on local law enforcement and local jurisdiction period,” [Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk] Taylor said. “It will affect our ability to dismantle the large criminal organizations that we’ve done in the past and it will literally decimate some of the smaller agencies out in southeast and southwest Colorado.”
Denver7’s story today has the same justice-vs. cash for cops argument playing out:
“Local law enforcement is actually selling property before someone is even showing up to trial. That’s a huge problem and so we need to make sure we have reporting, transparency and yes we need penalties for local law enforcement agencies that abuse the process,” said bill sponsor Representative Leslie Herod, a Democrat.
The County Sheriffs of Colorado agree with the need for transparency, but do not agree on how they say it could limit task force resources throughout the state.
“A lot of the counties don’t have the money to put the supplemental budgets in there to make these drug task forces go, and so that leads to decreased ability to do drug investigations and human trafficking investigations,” said Chris Johnson, Executive Director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado.
Politically, this is a bill that Gov. Hickenlooper should definitely sign. The self-interested case from law enforcement that they need the money sidesteps the real problem, which is that assets should not be seized from innocent people. In a civil asset forfeiture case, persons who have had their property seized have no right to legal counsel as in a criminal case. As a Denver7 report last year explained, prosecutors are under time constraints to file the civil forfeiture case, which leads to subsequently exonerated citizens having to wage costly legal battles to recover their property.
The bill in question does not end civil asset forfeiture in Colorado, requiring only greater transparency and a requirement that smaller seizure cases use Colorado’s tighter standards instead of the federal program. The reason law enforcement is resorting to scare tactics in demanding this bill be vetoed is they really don’t have a rational case to make here.
The reason this legislation passed the General Assembly this year with lopsided bipartisan support is simple: there’s no good reason to oppose it. If there was ever a case when Hickenlooper should set aside inside-baseball pressure and do both the right and politically expedient thing, this is it.