By Arthur Kane | Watchdog.org
A freshman Colorado state senator wants to stop police from seizing assets unless the owner is convicted of a crime.
“Guilty people will lose the fruits of their crimes, but innocent people will get their assets back,” said bill sponsor Sen. Laura Woods, R-Arvada.
Currently, state law allows asset forfeiture without a conviction under certain narrow circumstances, like if the person doesn’t show up for court for the crime or dies before trial. Woods said police also work around the current law by bringing in federal law enforcement, who will then split the proceeds with the local department after any assets are sold.
Senate Bill 2015-006 would prevent police from taking any assets without a guilty conviction unless there is a settlement with all the parties, including the owner, agreeing to give up the property. The legislation is also likely to discourage police from going to the feds because any money from sold assets would go directly to the state general fund instead of to individual police agencies.
“They were seizing for salaries and policing for profit,” Woods said. “Police departments saw (asset forfeiture) as a new stream of revenue and my predecessors have abdicated their responsibility because the executive branch raised and spent money without legislative oversight.”
On Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder banned federal agencies from seizing assets from local law enforcement cases without conviction unless the property is a safety concern like weapons, drugs and child pornography, a Department of Justice news release announced. It’s unclear what impact that move will have on Woods’ bill.
While her co-sponsor in the House, state Rep. Lori Saine, is also a Republican, Woods said she expects Democratic support because the bill is about civil liberties and has gained supported from the American Civil Liberties Union in any state it is proposed.
“Poor people, when their assets are seized, are the least likely to get them back because they can’t hire an attorney so I expect Democratic support in the House,” she said.
However, she expects opposition from police and municipal groups who, she said, have come to rely on the revenue stream.
County Sheriffs of Colorado, Colorado Municipal League , District Attorneys Council, the Colorado Department of Public Safety and the Colorado Attorney General’s office are looking at the bill.
University of Colorado-Boulder police chief Melissa Zak, who is legislative chairwoman of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said the police association is going to oppose the bill as it’s currently written.
“The existing law provides sufficient protections for asset forfeiture in Colorado,” she said. “And this bill will significantly hamper law enforcement efforts.”
She said with plea bargaining and financial constraints that prosecutors have, there will be drug dealers and other criminals who will get their money back under the proposed legislation.
“The public is going to be significantly hurt,” she said, adding there are already protections in state law and processes where people with seized assets can get their property back. She also questioned whether the stories about wrongful asset seizures have been blown out of proportion.
Woods concedes she doesn’t know how often police seize assets in Colorado without conviction or go to the federal government to get around current state law, but media attention around the country to asset forfeiture abuses prompted her to act.
“I was hearing from concerned citizens about the issue,” she said. “They’re getting the idea that if it can happen in other places, it can happen here.”