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Colorado bill aimed at accountability for forfeiture seizures dies in legislature

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Police and prosecutors on Wednesday protested a bill that aimed at increasing transparency when officials seize property under forfeiture laws.

Supporters of the bipartisan Senate Bill 136 seemed dismayed that law enforcement would so passionately oppose a bill that only aimed at accountability.

The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the measure on a party-line vote, with Republicans opposing the effort, despite the bipartisan sponsorship.

The crux of the bill would have required agencies to disclose information on each criminal property forfeiture and how the agency used the proceeds.

“Forfeiture is a legitimate government function. No one convicted of a crime has a right to its proceeds,” said Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, a sponsor of the bill. “Despite being legitimate, legislators have a responsibility to establish safeguards against possible abuse and monitor its use.

“It is our responsibility to ensure fairness and justice.”

A concern that is driving the process is that agencies – including prosecutors and police – have been outsourcing forfeiture legal work to the federal government, which does not have the same stringent standards as Colorado.

Colorado law enforcement agencies use forfeiture proceeds to supplement local budgets.

“The federal process does not afford the protections that Coloradans … deserve,” said Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, who is sponsoring the bill with Neville.

“This is a matter of Coloradans having the right to certain processes. If those processes aren’t followed and instead the federal procedures are followed, that diminishes Coloradans’ rights to process.”

The bill would require agencies seizing property under forfeiture to update information on a website. The state auditor would conduct an audit of seized property and expenditures of forfeiture proceeds. An annual report explaining seizure and forfeiture activities would be made public.

The measure also would prohibit agencies from referring cases to the federal government for litigation unless the property in question is in excess of $100,000.

Police and prosecutors said the bill would handicap their abilities by forcing them away from outsourcing cases to the federal government. Prosecutors pointed out that their budgets are tight, so it would be difficult to hire someone just to handle forfeiture litigation.

“It doesn’t specifically restrict seizures, but as a practical matter, yes it would,” said deputy attorney general Scott Turner, whose office opposes the bill.

El Paso County prosecutor Dan May said the new requirements would force agencies to drop cases, resulting in returning assets “back to the human trafficker, back to the drug dealer, back to the person doing illegal weapons.”

But some who spoke on Wednesday described themselves as “victims” of the forfeiture process, saying they had their homes raided and property seized sometimes over petty offenses in which charges were ultimately dropped.

Neville was careful to point to these “victims” in his closing remarks.

“The use of civil forfeiture has been abused in many cases, in many states,” Neville said. “It’s an awesome power, use of which needs to be made transparent to the public … This is not a radical bill.”

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