Forfeiture reform bill makes warranted changes
Police and prosecutors are complaining loudly about a bill that would rein in the practice of property seizures in drug and other felony investigations.
The bill would limit their ability to combat a crime, they say. These officers of the law seem oblivious to the fact that seizures themselves border on the criminal or unconstitutional.
It’s a wonder the seizure practice wasn’t struck down in a court before it ever became a legislative issue.
But now state Rep. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, has introduced House Bill 1404. It would reform Colorado’s law by, among other things, generally preventing forfeiture until a conviction is obtained. At present, seizures can occur even before a suspect is charged.
The bill also would shift the burden of proof to governments to justify seizures, as opposed to the burden being on the accused to stop them. It makes prosecutors prove a strong link between confiscated property and the crime.
As it stands, criminal suspects aren’t automatically entitled to recover their property even if acquitted, because the seizure occurs under a civil rather than a criminal procedure. The civil action means additional costs for them, and sometimes the property already has been auctioned off by the time an acquittal occurs.
Horror stories about the forfeiture law abound.
Forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement agencies. Mitchell says that gives police inappropriate incentives to make arrests.
Some of the proceeds go to valid purposes, such as cars used for undercover work. Cash seized, or raised through forfeiture auctions, helps fund enforcement.
But there also are tales of forfeiture revenues paying for pizzas and Christmas parties, and a seized hot tub ending up in a sheriff’s house.
The law, originally aimed at drug offenses, has been expanded to all felonies. As a result, if a man uses the family car while soliciting a prostitute, for example, the car can be confiscated, punishing not just the man but his family.
Former state Rep. Jerry Kopel tells of a 1990 case in which a sheriff tried to seize the house where a man was charged with committing incest with his daughter. Thus, the girl would be victimized twice by being made homeless, Kopel said. The sheriff was thwarted only when outraged citizens paid what he wanted for the house.
Defenders of the law dispute the level of abuses going on, saying procedures have been tightened up. But part of the problem is that there’s been little accounting for forfeiture proceeds. Most law enforcement authorities haven’t filed the required annual forfeiture report.
Mitchell’s bill would tighten reporting procedures. It also specifies other recipients for the proceeds, such as treatment programs, and innocent family members and other co-owners who now suffer from a relative’s actions.
Law enforcement still would receive some proceeds, because some revenues would go to local jurisdictions where forfeitures occur.
Forfeiture laws are an earnest but overreaching element of the nation’s war on drugs.
Two years ago, Congress recognized that things had gone too far, and passed a law curbing the practice. New Mexico and Nevada’s legislatures and Utah and Oregon voters have done the same.
Many police and prosecutors in Colorado object to the bill, saying the proposed reforms would cripple enforcement operations because they rely heavily on resources obtained through forfeiture. But the ends don’t justify the means.
This newspaper would never sanction funding of law enforcement through theft. But forfeitures can come close to being just that, and reform is well-warranted.
– Dennis Webb, News Editor
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