Gov. John Hickenlooper is being pressured to decide between criminal justice reform and the needs of the law enforcement community regarding a controversial civil forfeiture bill.
Much of the law enforcement community, including Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey, is urging Hickenlooper to veto the legislation, which aims at reporting seizure information to the state and pushing cases away from federal control.
The governor has reportedly received dozens of letters in opposition from police and local governments, including from the Colorado Municipal League, Colorado Counties, Inc., the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs Of Colorado and Colorado State Patrol, to name a few.
The criminal justice reform side of the debate says the practice, in which law enforcement can seize money and property in suspected criminal cases, even before a verdict is reached and without due process, is abusive.
The governor has not yet made a decision on the measure, which has him in a thorny situation. His office continues to discuss the bill with stakeholders, including lawmakers and law enforcement officials.
One option facing the governor is to allow the measure to become law without his signature, though he would likely include a letter explaining his position.
Police chiefs and sheriffs say they aren’t opposed to the idea of reforming the practice, but that they believe more state-level research into the subject should be done before the legislation becomes law. It’s also a matter of maintaining budgets.
“I understand the desire to increase transparency regarding the process of asset forfeiture, and I support those efforts. However, this bill goes far beyond improving public access to data and analysis regarding asset forfeiture,” Chief Carey wrote in a letter to Hickenlooper.
The bill passed the legislature this year after intense negotiations and previous failed attempts. Supporters of the bill were under the impression that they had reached a fair compromise, but law enforcement says the state is moving too quickly.
“This bill seeks to drastically restrict our participation in the federal asset seizure and forfeiture process without any evidence this process is misused in the state of Colorado,” Carey wrote.
A concern that is driving the process is that agencies – including prosecutors and police – have been outsourcing the legal process to the federal government, which does not have the same standards as Colorado.
Under the legislation, police departments would need to disclose biannually any forfeiture proceeds through either a state of federal forfeiture process.
What’s most concerning to law enforcement is that agencies would be prohibited from receiving proceeds from federal forfeiture cases if property and money seized is less than $50,000. The idea is that smaller cases should be handled by the state, not by federal prosecutors.
Critics, however, say the $50,000 figure is arbitrary and that it has not been studied.
Meanwhile, supporters of the bill say the legislation is not about painting law enforcement in a negative light. They argue it’s about ending a failed drug war that is benefiting law enforcement, while also encouraging transparency.
“We know there are bad actors and we have to talk about that,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, a sponsor of the legislation.
“The fact that they have not been reporting is a problem. The fact that they have been going around the state process is a problem.”
Supporters of the bill say money seized should be applied to criminal justice reform, including fueling programs that combat the opioid epidemic.
But police say the bill would handicap their ability to fight crime by forcing agencies away from outsourcing cases to the federal government. Some prosecutors also fear that they are headed down a road where they would eventually have to hire staff just to handle forfeiture litigation.
The Colorado Springs Police Department said had the bill been in place during cases since 2012, the department would not have received federal equitable sharing in 85 percent of cases. Local officers spent over 42,000 hours investigating cases with federal partners.
But Herod said the alternative is that the legislature comes back next year and discusses a complete elimination of the state’s participation in forfeiture cases.
“It’s important to note that we need to pass this bill or we’ll see bills in the future that say we need to get rid of asset forfeiture altogether,” Herod said. “Quite frankly, they might have that support.”