Guv should sign 1313

Mesa County officials aren’t wrong to question the threshold that determines which set of rules local law enforcement authorities must abide by to receive proceeds from civil forfeiture actions stemming from multi-jurisdictional investigations involving federal agencies.

Nevertheless, we encourage Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign House Bill 1313 containing the threshold provision as it reflects a grand bargain to bring more transparency into forfeiture activities and strengthen due process protections.

Under the bill, law enforcement will have to detail to the public when it uses the process known as “civil forfeiture” and detail what was seized and what was the ultimate disposition of the property. Law enforcement will also have to report if the person from whom the property was seized was ever charged or convicted of a crime. There will be a fine levied against those entities that fail to report.

Mesa County officials say they don’t have a problem with this aspect of the bill. But the bill also prohibits “seizing agencies” from receiving forfeiture proceeds from the federal government unless the value of the property and currency seized in the case is in excess of $50,000. They’ll have to follow the state’s civil-forfeiture rules instead.

Of the $2 million Mesa County received under a federal “equitable sharing” program between 2012 and 2016, more than half came from forfeitures of $50,000 or less. This is money the county uses for training and programs like CrimeStoppers, Alive at 25 and Sober Grad.

As The Sentinel’s Charles Ashby summarized in a story earlier this month, 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 can lead to abuses as departments become reliant on seizures as a revenue source.

Bill sponsors say this is self-funding outside the normal appropriations process. The $50,000 threshold means local law enforcement officials can’t bypass much tougher state-level restrictions and due process protections on asset forfeiture activity, thus making it easier for people never charged with a crime to get their property back.

The bottom line is that more than three-quarters of state lawmakers want local law enforcement agencies to clear a higher bar to get a cut of the majority of busts arising from joint operations with the feds.

According to bill sponsors, between 2000 and 2013, local law enforcement received more than $47 million from the Department of Justice alone, which amounts to more than three times the amount collected under state forfeiture laws.

We’re sympathetic to Mesa County officials’ claims that this bill would hurt them financially. They say the state process to get a cut of forfeiture actions is so cumbersome and expensive that it’s not worth pursuing. Yet, it won’t stop them from continuing to team with feds on drug interdiction along Interstate 70. The cost of these efforts will remain, but there will be no recompense.

But if the governor vetoes HB1331 over concerns about the threshold there’s no guarantee lawmakers could reach consensus on a future reform effort. Passing the bill with strong bipartisan support was no easy lift — and the $50,000 threshold was a compromise that got it to the governor’s desk.

Mesa County can still get money under state rules. Maybe not as much. But we agree with the majority of lawmakers who view civil forfeiture as too big a threat to property rights to let the status quo prevail.


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