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|March 5-11, 2009
Back to Letters
When cops are thieves
by Pamela White
If the County Sheriffs of Colorado has its way, law-enforcement agencies will soon be able to take your house, cars, cash and jewelry, sell it off and divvy up the proceeds quietly and privately among themselves. This organization, which lobbies for the interests of sheriffs across the state, is the force behind House Bill 1238, which rolls back a 2002 law guaranteeing Colorado residents reasonable protections against “asset forfeiture” — a fancy legal term for when the cops use the force of law to take your stuff.
The idea behind asset forfeiture is to deprive criminals of property used to commit crimes and the money they make by breaking the law. Think of a coke kingpin with several houses, a yacht, a few helicopters, lots of guns and ammo, as well as a fleet of fancy cars.
When he’s busted, the empire that cocaine built is taken from him, liquidated and put toward paying for the expense that went into bringing him down. Fair enough, right?
When it comes to drug kingpins, asset forfeiture seems just and reasonable. But every law has unintended consequences. Prior to 2002, the state’s asset forfeiture law too often resulted in property and cash being taken from innocent men and women — people who either hadn’t committed a crime or who were arrested but later acquitted. Further, the law gave law-enforcement officers a financial incentive to see every arrest as a potential opportunity for profit.
Consider the single mom who loaned her car to her cousin — only to lose it after the police pulled her cousin over and discovered marijuana seeds and a wad of cash hidden in the vehicle. It didn’t matter that the car didn’t belong to the cousin or that the woman was innocent or that losing the car was a major financial blow to her. The police sold the vehicle and pocketed the cash.
Then there was the disabled man who, prior to the state’s medical marijuana law, was busted for growing a couple of pot plants in his house. He wasn’t a dealer; he didn’t sell dope to school kids. Instead, he used marijuana to control his chronic pain. The police checked county records and saw that he’d paid off his mortgage with settlement money from the accident that deprived him of his mobility. After discovering how much money was tied up in his house, they started forfeiture proceedings, depriving a man with no job and no ability to work of his home at great profit to their agency.
And what about the Mexican worker who came here legally to help build Denver International Airport? He bought a ticket home and boarded a plane with $15,000 in hard-earned cash. Police searched him and found the cash. They discovered no drugs on him or in his luggage. Nor did they find any evidence that the money came from the commission of a crime. But because a drug-sniffing dog reacted to the money, they decided to keep it, even though studies have shown that 99 percent of bills in circulation are tainted with the scent of illegal drugs. After the man hired an attorney, he got 40 percent of his wages back, but the cops kept the other 60 percent because they could.
The above are real incidents provided to Boulder Weekly by attorneys who worked to get the 2002 reform bill passed and signed into law. (See “Pirate police,” cover story, March 21, 2002.) It was incidents like these that brought people together from the left and the right and all points in between to change state law to protect individual property rights and discourage abuses by law-enforcement agencies.
The 2002 law, still currently in force, works in a couple of different ways, requiring that a person be convicted before their property can be taken. It also removes the financial motivation for law enforcement to seize assets by dividing the money from forfeitures equally between local substance-abuse programs and local county or city government for allocation through a public budgeting process. And it requires law-enforcement agencies to stay on the level by submitting an annual forfeiture report to the Department of Local Affairs.
Now, some in the law-enforcement community want to revert to the way things were before the 2002 law passed, when they could take people’s money, jewelry, cars and homes without first getting a criminal conviction and keep the majority of it without any public accountability. It’s a recession, after all, and they need money from somewhere.
House Bill 1238, sponsored in the house by Rep. Joe Rice, D-Glendale, and in the Senate by Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, would wipe away the 2002 reforms that curbed law-enforcement abuses. It would remove the requirement that a person be convicted of a criminal offense before their property could be taken. It would further allow a person’s property to be taken even if that person didn’t know his or her property was being used to commit a crime. It would even remove the requirement that law-enforcement agencies prove that the property they’re trying to seize was instrumental in committing a crime. And it would allow cops to keep the majority of the booty without any public accountability or reporting requirement.
In short, HB 1238 gives law-enforcement agencies both the incentive and the legal ability to abuse their authority at the expense of your individual property rights. As one local attorney, Dennis Blewitt, put it, “It turns cops into privateers.”
We need law-enforcement agencies to uphold our rights, not to rob us at gunpoint. Fortunately, the same bipartisan, grassroots coalition that came together to get the 2002 reforms passed is joining forces once again to defeat Rice’s ill-conceived bill. Boulder Weekly urges you to join that effort by contacting Sen. Shaffer and other local representatives and asking them to kill HB 1238. A bill like this is utterly at odds with the United State’s highest principles of justice, among them this gem: “innocent until proven guilty.”
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