After a 7½-hour hearing, Sen. Pete Lee’s second effort this legislative session to clamp down on the use of arrests and cash bail for what he described as low-level offenses advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.
But as with Senate Bill 62, the Colorado Springs Democrat’s initial attempt this year to reform the pre-trial criminal justice system, Senate Bill 273 drew strong pushback from law enforcement and bail bondsmen. It also was opposed by both judges who provided testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and divided the opinions of three district attorneys who appeared to testify.
That was a situation Lee seemed keen to avoid when speaking with reporters earlier in the week when he described SB 273 as a “reset.”
“It became clear that [SB] 62 was having some trouble because some of the narrative about it had turned quite negative; people didn't fully understand what we're trying to do,” he said. “So we decided to create a new vehicle to serve as a conduit for the change that we want to make in the criminal legal system.”
According to Lee, the bill as written seeks to “alter the mindset of police when they're going into an encounter from one of arrest, subdue and incarcerate to one of ticket and summons.” It would do that by banning law enforcement from arresting alleged perpetrators solely for crimes rising up to the level of misdemeanor, with certain exceptions including victim rights crimes, unlawful sexual behavior and illegal possession or use of a firearm, among others.
“Sixty-plus percent of encounters between police and citizens are over low-level offenses, what I call it poverty offenses or street offenses, and those offenses are what can escalate if the mindset is one of subdue and incarcerate,” Lee said.
The bill would also prohibit courts from issuing monetary bonds for alleged offenses that rise to the level of class 4, 5, or 6 felonies unless the court determines the defendant is a flight risk or threatens the safety of a member of the community. Those provisions remained unchanged from SB 62. Lee’s initial bill included those low-level felonies in the arrest prohibition as well, but he stripped those out of the latest version in hopes to move people to support the latest version of the legislation.
The bond provision of the bill would also require courts to issue a personal recognizance bond if a defendant fails to appear for their court date, with a handful of exceptions built in.
District Attorney Alonzo Payne, one of two DAs to testify in support of the measure along with Beth McCann, praised the bond provision as one that addressed the criminalization of poverty.
“Misdemeanor offenses for the large part, if you were being held in custody, it is because you are poor,” said Payne, who represents southern Colorado’s 12th judicial district. “When people are being presented with cash and surety bonds that are anywhere from $50 to $5,000, those are amounts that most people can't meet.”
Lee said the motivation behind the effort came from listening to Minnesota Attorney General and former Congressman Keith Ellison speak in the aftermath of the verdict finding former police officer Derrick Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd.
“He talked about the need to reset the relationship between police and community so that rather than having interactions which are characterized by fear and anger and terror ... they want to set a relationship based more on the idea of protect and serve,” he said.
For one witness, the effects of the legislation could bring about were far closer to home. Pastor Spencer Booker – the brother of homeless street preacher Marvin Booker, who died at in the Denver jail at the hands of law enforcement in 2010 – said Lee’s proposal was a matter of life and death.
“If this bill had been in place in 2010, my mother's birthday baby would still be alive,” Booker said in emotional testimony.
But a series of police chiefs and high-ranking law enforcement officials told the Senate panel that the bill would move the state further away from Lee’s overall goal of improving public safety.
Todd Reeves, the deputy chief of police for the city of Westminster, said the bill amounted to “removing tools from law enforcement that will make this job even more impossible.”
“The crimes referred to as low-level crimes, these are crimes with victims,” he said. “I prefer not to minimize the impacts when it happens to a human being.”
Westminster Municipal Judge Jason Lantagne also voiced opposition to the measure, citing concerns over the bond provisions and potential unintended consequences that the bill could create.
“[SB] 273 will codify the current reality and create an ongoing situation where defendants can accumulate multiple cases without any intervention by the court,” he said.
The bill also drew opposition from a series of bondsmen and those involved in the bail industry including Duane Chapman, better known as "Dog the Bounty Hunter," who made an appearance at the state Capitol.
But proponents of the bill, like Rebecca Wallace of the ACLU of Colorado, noted that the bill’s provisions would not only protect members of the community, but also law enforcement. She pointed to the case of Karen Garner, a 73-year-old woman with dementia who was injured by former Loveland Police Department officers after she left a Walmart, having forgotten to pay for less than $15 worth of items. The district attorney for Colorado's 8th Judicial District announced earlier this week those former officers now face criminal charges.
“If this law had been in place, the officers would have known that they could only ticket Mrs. Garner,” she said. “This would have been better for Mrs. Garner, but you know who else it would have been better for? The police, the law enforcement officers who are now charged with criminal offenses.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of punishment and SB 273 is prevention — violence prevention, harm prevention — for our communities and our law enforcement.”
Wallace also accused some of the opposition of engaging in fearmongering and “blatant misrepresentations about the bill.”
“They were intended to push a fear-based ‘no’ vote,” Wallace said of some of the comments made by the opposition without specifying the testimony she was referencing. “Suggesting that this bill will prevent arrest for violent offenses or require a PR bond for any specific offense is false and demonstrably so and saying otherwise during a hearing does not make it true.”
Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican and one of the panel’s two GOP members, pushed back on that assertion.
“To state overtly that they're engaging in fearmongering, it strikes me as itself a little over the top,” Gardner said. “I think that those concerns of the opponents of this bill are legitimate. You may disagree with them and you may find them to be highly objectionable from your point of view, but to imply that they are offered in bad faith or that they're offered with a disregard for the wellbeing of our citizenry seems to be a bit over the top.”
Along with Gardner, former Weld County Sheriff and Greeley Republican Sen. John Cooke voted against the measure. Cooke indicated early in the hearing he felt “there is really no difference between this and Senate Bill 62.”
Lee and the panel’s other two Democrats voted in favor of the measure, though, providing enough support to advance it on to the Senate Finance Committee.