$400,000 taken in seizure cases spread around

Nearly $400,000 that originally came to Mesa County law enforcement agencies via a somewhat controversial seizure process was spent last year on new technology and equipment, ballistic armor, software upgrades, training conferences for cops and more than a dozen other programs.

The civil asset forfeiture funds – money seized by the federal government during investigations of potential criminal cases, then re-distributed to law enforcement agencies after a court process – paid for a bevy of programs in 2016 that benefited the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, the Grand Junction Police Department, the Fruita Police Department, the Palisade Police Department and the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office.

The funds are held in an account managed by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, but doled out by a board whose members include the heads of all Grand Valley law enforcement agencies, said Undersheriff Rusty Callow. Mesa County agencies received $1.2 million in federal forfeiture funds between 2014 and 2016, including $61,639 last year, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Megan Terlecky. The fund – which includes some carry-over from past years – disbursed $392,633 to the five agencies last year.

The largest single program funded was $100,000 to the Grand Junction Police Department for upgrades to Aegis, software for records management and dispatch. The department received another $50,351 to upgrade the software’s capabilities for officers in the field “Since Aegis is the public safety software that we use county-wide, all agencies benefit from any upgrades or enhancements,” police spokeswoman Heidi Davidson wrote in an email.

Agencies spent a combined $62,845 on sending employees to various conferences, which Terlecky said presented valuable training opportunities. Other programs funded included the Grand Junction Police Department receipt of $52,600 to pay for a bomb squad robot used to “safely assess and render safe” suspicious packages, Davidson said. The Sheriff’s Office received $15,360 to outfit emergency medical technicians with ballistic gear, a purchase Callow said was prompted by a recent update to the way active shooter and other similar situations are handled. In the past, medics stayed behind while law enforcement cleared an affected building or area completely. Now, best practice says EMTs should make entry with cops.

“In order to take them into those danger zones, we did provide the gear,” Callow said.

The Palisade Police Department took $11,908 to upgrade its Taser program, and the Fruita Police Department received $8,595 for surveillance cameras.

The smallest grant given went to the Grand Junction Police Department – a $159.85 expenditure for honor guard uniforms.

While the law prevents agencies from using seized funds to meet their normal budget needs, Callow said the funds are well-used.

“Overall, those purchases you see are a tremendous savings to the taxpayer,” he said.

PROGRAM WILL BE IMPACTED BY NEW LAW

Mesa County’s civil asset forfeiture income will likely change drastically this year. None of the $61,639 obtained through the federal civil asset forfeiture program last year would have been possible under changes to the process signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper this year. House Bill 1313, which passed through the Legislature with strong support this spring, prohibits state agencies from receiving forfeiture proceeds from the federal government unless the value of the property and cash seized in the case is $50,000 or more.

In 2016, none of the $61,639 new dollars would have met that threshold, according to the sheriff’s office.

In 2015, 38 percent of the funds received came from seizures that fell under the new $50,000 threshold, and the year before, 68 percent, Terlecky wrote in an email.

There is a process to claim civil asset forfeiture funds through the state, but Callow said it’s “expensive and cumbersome.”

Advocates of the bill sought to prevent law enforcement agencies from using seized funds as an income stream, and to make it easier for people to get seized funds back if they never end up being charged with a crime. Currently, funds and property can be seized from people suspected of being involved in a crime. In some cases, those people are never charged or convicted.

The bill also requires law enforcement to detail in a public report what was seized, what happened to the property and whether the person whose property was seized was ever charged or convicted.

Grand Junction-based defense attorney Daniel Shaffer said while he’s a fan of the transparency the reporting requirements bring, he thinks the new law doesn’t address his main problem with seizures: governments can seize funds and assets from people even if they don’t later prosecute them.

“I’m not a fan of civil asset forfeiture separate from criminal proceedings,” Shaffer wrote in an email. “I’m also not a fan of laws that appear to be intended to curb other laws. If you’re opposed to a law such as civil asset forfeiture then lobby against it.”

Shaffer said he hasn’t seen a “true civil asset forfeiture case” in which original owners try to reclaim their assets in court on the Western Slope in a few years, though he has handled them in the past.

“While I don’t like the practice, I can’t say that I am seeing it being abused on the local level,” Shaffer said. “If it were being abused I’d be fighting about it in court.”

Callow said the new law was passed “to solve non-existent problems” and will have a severe impact on Mesa County law enforcement.

“Here in Mesa County we feel like our civil forfeiture board is really a model that addresses the concerns that the state’s lawmakers had,” Callow said. “In hindsight I really wish they had done some more research before this law went through.”

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