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Colorado police, sheriffs up in arms over civil asset forfeiture bill

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.”

Hickenlooper spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said the governor — facing mounting pressure — is “reviewing this bill,” which passed this legislative session after earlier failed attempts at similar laws.

Civil asset forfeiture allows federal and local law enforcement to take money and property from people suspected of being linked to crime as a way to immediately stymie illegal activities, especially in narcotics and human trafficking cases. There is a federal process and a Colorado one, the latter of which is seen as more strict for officers because it has tougher rules about how seizures can take place.

The process that is used can depend on whether a prosecution occurs in state or federal court, but money is still shared with local agencies either way.

Nationally, forfeiture has come under fire as a mechanism to incentivize so-called “policing for profit,” specifically since a person can have their property and money seized before being charged. Law enforcement officials often say it’s a crucial tool to keep bad guys at bay, and pays for local officers to work on federal task forces.

“We have a number of states that are enacting civil forfeiture reform,” said state Sen. Tim Neville,a Littleton Republican who sponsored the bill. “It provides more due process opportunity for Colorado residents. We need to know who is doing the forfeitures and on what. Are people (whose property and money are seized) actually being prosecuted?”

The bill in part seeks to analyze how civil asset forfeiture is carried out in Colorado by mandating that police agencies report seizure information twice a year to the state. But the provision that opponents worry about most would 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 the Colorado process, instead of the federal one.

But those against the legislation say that amount is an arbitrary threshold, and according to one estimate from the Colorado Municipal League, it could represent half or more of all seized assets. Carey said in the past five years alone, his department has received $2 million in seizures from investigations it worked on with federal law enforcement agencies.

“Of those cases, 85 percent of them did not meet the $50,000 threshold,” Carey said. “So that means 15 percent of that would be equitable sharing in the future.”

Carey said that could mean significant cuts in his officers’ participation in operations with the Drug Enforcement Administration, in particular, and possibly in human trafficking cases. In 2014, federal law enforcement seized $13.5 million in Colorado, about $2.8 million of which made its way to the state’s police forces.

“It doesn’t change the state forfeiture process,” said Chip Taylor, executive director of Colorado Counties Inc., which wants the bill vetoed. “This seems like it is just punishing, but it doesn’t change the behavior.”

Additional groups opposed to the bill include the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and County Sheriffs Of Colorado. The president of the sheriffs’ group, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, [cq comment=””]sees added pain for small agencies.

“For them to come across a seizure that’s $50,000 or above, is few and far between,” said Smith, who feels the bill is ultimately aimed at ending civil asset forfeiture in Colorado altogether. “It’s a difficult process for them to work their way through in the first place. I just simply see a lot of agencies — they will abandon forfeitures.”

And groups against the bill also say there isn’t proof of widespread problems with civil asset forfeiture in Colorado like in other states.

“We feel like if you’re going to do something that you consider to be reform, then there needs to be a problem identified,” said Meghan Dollar, legislative and policy advocate for the Colorado Municipal League, which opposes the bill’s signing. “Let’s sit down with the people who actually work on civil forfeiture and (identify a solution).”

Denise Maes, of the ACLU of Colorado, generally agrees that there isn’t much evidence of widespread wrongdoing in the state, but chalks up the scant evidence to a lack of data.

“Because the reporting requirements have been so shoddy, it’s been hard to follow the money,” she said. “You will have a lot more people with greater due process protection as the result of this bill.”

Maes pointed to anecdotal reports of problems with forfeiture in Colorado, such as the Denver Police Department using money from its confiscation fund to pay for a controversial social media software that could monitor postings.

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.

“It’s a good bill. It’s a compromise bill. It’s a Colorado bill,” said Herod. “It’s based in the realities of what’s going on here locally, and we are hoping that the governor will sign it.”

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This story was first published on DenverPost.com