Governor should veto bill that hurts rural law enforcement
By Dan Rubinstein, Matt Lewis and Rose Pugliese
House Bill 1313 is a bill dealing with civil forfeiture reform. The current forfeiture process allows law enforcement agencies, under certain circumstances, to seize property and undergo a process forfeiting ownership. While our liberty-loving friends might get excited at the idea of civil forfeiture reform, this bill has nothing to do with enhanced freedom. It does not eliminate civil forfeitures entirely nor does it require a conviction before property is forfeited.
HB1313 mandates increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement in dealing with forfeited funds and items. While we believe these safeguards exist under current law, we are not opposed to transparency or accountability.
It is the second part of this bill that will have detrimental impacts on Mesa County and many rural counties throughout the state. Currently, if a county is involved in a federal task force and receives seized funds, these funds are distributed through a federal process. Mesa County, because it borders I-70, is involved in many multi-jurisdictional task forces to deal with a multitude of crimes, especially drug trafficking. Under the federal process, the counties receive up to 80 percent of the seized funds.
HB1313 changes the current process. It establishes a $50,000 threshold before any state or local agency may receive any portion of the federal forfeited proceeds regardless of their involvement in the investigation. There seems to be some belief this will cause any forfeiture under $50,000 to now go through the state process rather than the federal process we currently use. There are several problems with this thinking. This Colorado bill would not prevent a seizure under $50,000 from being completed under the federal system, it merely does not allow local agencies that participate in the investigation to receive any share or benefit of the forfeiture. The seizures will still occur but local agencies will not be allowed to benefit and the Colorado process is so overly cumbersome and expensive to pursue that Mesa County has declined to pursue state forfeitures since 2005. It simply costs us more than we receive. With the federal process, we received $2 million in forfeiture funds in Mesa County from 2012-2016; of that, $1.1 million was under $50,000. In that same time period, in Garfield County 20 of its 21 forfeitures were under $50,000.
Currently, in Mesa County, the forfeited funds go to all of our law enforcement agencies (Sheriff’s Office, police departments, District Attorney’s Office, marshal’s offices, and the Colorado State Patrol) countywide to assist in enhanced training programs, purchase equipment to keep our officers safe, and help prevent crime in our area.
The Mesa County commissioners, our district attorney, our sheriff and our chiefs of police were, and continue to be, opposed to HB1313. The statewide associations for commissioners, municipalities, sheriffs and police chiefs are also opposed, along with former Mesa County sheriff and now executive director for the Department of Public Safety, Stan Hilkey, and the state Department of Local Affairs. We testified and submitted letters of opposition and tried to work with bill sponsors to amend HB1313 so that it did not hurt our communities.
The purpose of HB1313, according to bill sponsors, is to eliminate civil forfeitures. However, what legislators do not understand is that HB1313 will not stop civil forfeitures, as our Legislature is powerless to stop federal actions in federal courts. Moreover, it will not stop our law enforcement agencies in Mesa County from engaging in joint task forces with the federal partners to keep dangerous criminals from bringing harm to our community. All it will do is stop our counties from receiving the funding we use to protect our officers.
Mesa County is an anomaly as we are the 10th largest county in the state, but the only one of that group among 10 on the Western Slope and we border I-70. Mesa County will be the most affected county in the state for civil forfeitures under 1313.
We thank Rep. Yeulin Willett for his leadership in trying to get amendments passed on the $50,000 threshold and Rep. Dan Thurlow for voting against the bill. We look forward to future discussions with Sen. Ray Scott on the unintended consequences of HB1313.
At a time when the commissioners must consider putting a public safety tax on the ballot because we cannot financially sustain our growing public safety needs, the timing of this bill is even more devastating. It is now up to us to help lead the statewide effort asking the governor to veto 1313.
District Attorney Dan Rubinstein
Sheriff Matt Lewis
Commissioner Rose Pugliese