Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 12, 2017. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Colorado gov signs civil asset forfeiture bill, vetoes medical marijuana changes

“Government should never keep assets seized from innocent people,” Hickenlooper said in a written statement.

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill that changes how state law enforcement seize money and property suspected of being linked to crimes, despite pressure from Colorado sheriffs and police chiefs who say the measure will hurt investigations.

“Government should never keep assets seized from innocent people,” Hickenlooper said in a written statement. “House Bill 1313 is an important first step to address problems inherent in the civil forfeiture laws.”

The Democrat’s decision came within about an hour of his deadline to sign or veto bills passed during the legislative session and amid down-to-the-wire speculation about whether he would reject the measure. In making the legislation law, he created a task force to further analyze and develop policies involving civil asset forfeiture, and directed legislators to seek ways to fund police departments and sheriffs offices that could lose money because of the new statute.

“Complex reform does not happen overnight,” Hickenlooper wrote in a letter explaining his decision. “… Striking the right balance inevitably takes time. Today, we begin a process of reforming civil asset forfeiture.”

Civil asset forfeiture involves the seizure of money and property from people suspected of being linked to crime, sometimes before someone is charged. The proceeds then go to the investigating agency. There is a federal process and a Colorado one, the latter of which has tougher rules for how seizures can take place.

The legislation mandates that police agencies report seizure information twice a year to the state for analysis. But the provision that opponents worry most about will prohibit local law enforcement from receiving forfeiture proceeds from the federal government in cases where property and money seized is less than $50,000. That’s aimed at steering more seizures toward Colorado’s more stringent seizure process, in which local departments also get funds.

Most seizures fall below the $50,000 threshold, opponents of the measure say, meaning proceeds steered toward local agencies — and used to fund complex investigations — will shrink by hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

“As the impacts of this legislation come to light, we would hope to find partners in the legislature to approach asset forfeiture reform in a manner that won’t have as significant an impact on public safety,” Frederick police Chief Gary Barbour, head of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said in a statement Friday.

The Colorado Municipal League, which also opposed the legislation’s signing, said it was “very disappointed with this outcome.”

Supporters of the legislation, from the ACLU of Colorado to ProgressNow, celebrated the measure’s signing and say the law will provide greater due-process protections to Coloradans. The ACLU tweeted:

“It’s been a long time coming,” said state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It’s a great bill that allows for a balance between the needs of law enforcement to interdict crime, but also to protect those important civil liberties that should never be … abused.”

State. Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who also sponsored the bill, said the law came from “compromise legislation” that is “the right way forward.” Another sponsor, state Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, said he and others met with the governor to push the bill through and that Hickenlooper was “very torn” because of the law enforcement pushback.

The civil asset forfeiture measure was one of two pieces of legislation that the governor acted on Friday. Hickenlooper vetoed Senate Bill 111, which — with bipartisan backing — sought to change regulatory restrictions on how medical marijuana businesses can buy and sell pot. It was one of 14 pieces of legislation he has vetoed since taking office.

The governor said he vetoed the bill because it would weaken regulations that track medical cannabis and “risks destabilizing Colorado medical marijuana markets.”

Hickenlooper received 423 bills passed during the legislative session.

Including Senate Bill 111, he vetoed two measures and also sent three others to the secretary of state’s office without his signature — a rare move in which the legislation becomes law but one that allowed Hickenlooper to voice concern or protest for a bill without vetoing it.


Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com