There are plenty of things that are unfair about the way that Colorado handles drug charges and convictions. Nonviolent drug offenses can put you behind bars for longer than some violent crimes. Drugs associated with certain minority groups come with harsher penalties than similar drugs more commonly used by the majority – and statistics have long shown that, regardless of the type of drug charge – minority groups are disproportionately targeted and convicted, with far steeper penalties.
One of the most unfair practices that occurs, however, has also been one that is rarely talked about – until now: civil forfeiture.
What’s civil forfeiture? Basically, forfeiture laws give police the right to take property that is associated with a crime.
There are two types of forfeiture: criminal asset forfeiture, and civil forfeiture. Criminal forfeiture only allows police to take property from individuals who have been convicted of a crime, but civil forfeiture gives police the ability to take property from individuals who have merely been accused of crimes.
That’s right. You don’t have to be proven guilty first. In fact, even if you are later found innocent, the police may still be able to take your stuff – and you might not get it back.
In recent years, Colorado (along with many other states) has been looking to reform the way that drug crimes are handled. One of the issues that lawmakers are currently exploring is how to make civil forfeiture harder and hold police more accountable for the property they take.
The History of Civil Forfeiture Is a History of Abuse
Forfeiture was originally created with the intention of giving police the ability to break up large organizations and decrease the power of kingpins by taking their resources. Not a bad goal at all. However, as time passed, they started using it on small-scale operations as well.
Taking the property of a small-time criminal can leave families and individuals without their cars, homes, or money. Worse, it can lead police to focus more of their attention on cases where big assets exist that they can get their hands on.
Because of this, forfeiture has been referred to as “policing for profit” by some, and many describe it as one of the greatest abuses of power in our nation today.
Sadly, Colorado is not the exception to these problems.
Police Use Seized Assets to Enter Local Competition
Recently, a Denver7 Investigation revealed that not only were police taking cash and property without giving it back to individuals whose charges were later dropped, they also used that cash to enter a local Emmy competition.
Let’s take a step back for a second to explain by detailing a specific case.
One of the examples Denver7 provided was the story of Edwin Couse. Confusion in new marijuana laws led Couse to believe he was running a legal membership organization that distributed medical marijuana. When police came to raid his home, they took cell phones, cameras, and $1,800 in cash. Charges against Couse were eventually dropped, but he never got his cash or property back.
Where did it go?
The money could have gone to personal police protective equipment. It could have gone to gun lockers. It could have gone to hostage negotiation training.
Instead, it went to buying high-end video editing equipment and paying the entry fee for a local Emmy competition. That’s right. The investigation revealed that police had spent $120,000 of funds confiscated through forfeiture to amp up the media relations department.
The police argued that they benefited from advertising on their Facebook page and becoming a “gold standard” in communication. We’ll leave you to make an opinion on that.
Proposed New Laws Would Close Loopholes
Senate Bill 136 wants to limit when police can confiscate funds and what they can do with the assets that they do seize. It will set up a public website for people to see not only how much in cash and property is taken by police (between 2000 and 2013, state agencies confiscated at least $12.7 million through forfeiture), but also how it is spent.
SB136 will also aim to cut down on equitable sharing, a process by which Colorado agencies can seize property under federal law, and that gives state citizens less power to get their property back. Equitable sharing makes up 97% of confiscations.
That $12.7 million mentioned above? It has nothing on the $47 million that was confiscated between 2000 and 2013 under equitable sharing laws. SB136 would only allow Colorado police to confiscate cash in excess of $100,000. The idea is that this would prevent them from creating an undue hardship for lower income individuals and families while still enabling them to combat large kingpin organizations using forfeiture.
Of course, SB136 doesn’t eliminate civil forfeiture laws in Colorado, and it might not get passed through the Senate. If you have been affected by civil forfeiture laws or accused of drug crimes, get in contact with a Colorado defense lawyer immediately.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.