Lawmakers trying again with new civil-asset forfeiture bill

DENVER — If at first you don’t succeed, give it a new name and reintroduce a bill in the opposing chamber and try again.

That’s what lawmakers did for a measure reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

The legislators — Reps. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, and Sens. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, and Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village — started out trying to get law enforcement agencies to better report how often they use the state’s civil forfeiture laws, and how much private property they are keeping after seizing it from convicted criminals.

The first measure, SB136, also was aimed at limiting how much law enforcement can seize from criminals, and preventing them from keeping private property from people who are never charged or convicted.

But because Republicans who control the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t like the measure as drafted, primarily because law enforcement and the state’s district attorneys opposed it, the bill died on a party-line 3-2 vote in February.

Since then, with help from one of those committee ‘no’ votes, Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, the four sponsors introduced a new measure, HB1313, with some changes, including cutting in half the $100,000 threshold that barred local law enforcement from partnering with federal authorities in forfeiture cases.

While that bought support from prosecutors and other Republicans in the Senate — law enforcement groups still oppose it — the idea still didn’t sit well with some House Republicans.

Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, said that while he doesn’t mind the part of the bill that requires law enforcement to report how often they use and what they are netting from civil forfeitures, the measure still steps on the necks of law enforcement.

“It’s OK if it’s fifty grand or more?” Willett said. “So apparently, if you’re a successful criminal, your rights are a little bit different than if it’s twenty grand or less. That’s why this bill doesn’t make any sense. It simply hurts local government. It’s a bill searching for its own soul.”

Regardless of that opposition, the bill won preliminary approval in the House on a bipartisan vote Tuesday.

Like the first bill, the measure also calls on the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which currently is headed by former Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey, to create a special website listing what property law enforcement agencies have seized through civil forfeitures, and what proceeds those agencies end up keeping.

Forfeiture laws were originally designed to help cripple large criminal organizations by taking away their means to operate. Since then, however, critics of the practice say it has allowed police departments around the nation to abuse the system, using it to make up for budget cuts.

Sponsors of the bill said the practice has snagged innocent people.

“This doesn’t stop the practice, but it does push more of asset forfeiture into the state’s jurisdiction,” Herod said.

“The state forfeiture process is much more reasonable to people who may get snagged up in the process in trying to get their property back,” Neville added. “It’s less of a burden than the federal process.”

The bill requires a final House vote before heading to the Senate.


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