Civil forfeiture reform protects Colorado property owners
The Civil Forfeiture reform bill (HB1313) signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last Friday makes Colorado the latest of more than 20 states that have limited the power of law enforcement agencies to seize cash and property from suspected drug dealers or other detained individuals without due process, including arrest and filing charges.
Hickenlooper was not initially a supporter of HB1313. He told The Daily Sentinel last May that the bill “had plenty of support despite his opposition.”
“We used our weight to push against it,” Hickenlooper said. “Usually when you push against something that hard and it still passes, it’s hard to stop it.”
HB1313 prohibits seizing agencies from receiving proceeds from the federal government unless the value of the property and currency in the case exceeds $50,000 and the federal government commences a forfeiture proceeding that relates to a criminal case.
HB1313 also provides new reporting requirements and puts limits on asset forfeiture proceeds government agencies can receive for crime-fighting purposes.
This was not a partisan issue in the legislature. “Civil asset forfeiture reform passed the legislature by a combined vote of 81 to 19,” the ACLU of Colorado said in a letter urging Hickenlooper to sign the bill. “It was supported by Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, progressives and just about everyone in between,” Denise Maes, ACLU public policy director wrote. “Coloradans want and deserve stronger protections when property is taken by police.”
Opponents, including many in law enforcement agencies, argue that House Bill 1313 will hurt their crime-fighting efforts by depriving them of the money the forfeitures provide. Law enforcement agencies and local governments had asked Hickenlooper to veto the bill.
“Initially, the forfeiture was limited to the assets and ill-gotten gain of the worst offenders,” reports The Heritage Foundation: “drug kingpins, criminal organizations, and the money launderers that facilitated their illicit dealings.”
That plan to take out the kingpin dealers has expanded to more than 400 federal, and even more state, laws to seize property for suspected drug crimes. Often these property seizures are conducted even though no charges have been filed in either federal or state court. As the Heritage Foundation points out, “Typically, no criminal charges need be filed, nor convictions obtained, to permanently strip someone of his life savings or his family’s home.”
Rather than rounding up tons of illegitimate high-end drug distributors’ stashed cash, the median price of forfeited property was just $570 in Connecticut, where a forfeiture program was conducted in 2016, according to the Reason Foundation and the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.
If a property owner chooses to fight forfeiture in civil court, the foundation report explains, he “faces a tortuous process that is stacked against him from the beginning.”
If nothing else, the price of attorney fees would discourage most property owners from challenging the state over an amount less than the lawyers would charge to fight it.
In a statement attached to HB1313 by Hickenlooper when he signed it, the governor identified additional reforms he would like to implement in the next legislative session to address fairness and protection of citizens facing civil asset forfeiture.
“Government should never keep assets seized from innocent people,” Hickenlooper wrote in his letter. He continues, “House Bill 17-1313 is an important first step to address problems inherent in the civil forfeiture laws.”
Hickenlooper’s agenda for the next legislative session will build on the progress thus far toward reforming civil forfeiture laws. He has called on the Legislature to provide funds to current recipients of forfeiture proceeds to keep them whole, while removing any real or perceived financial interest in forfeitures by appropriating adequate funds to support the program.
So long as police departments and county sheriffs continue to reap profits from forfeitures to use in their law enforcement programs, the incentive to seize property for profit is very real, critics contend.
Hickenlooper’s signature on HB1313 is an important enhancement of protection against unjustified and abusive use of civil forfeiture of cash and property to separate accused citizens from their property without due process.