An effort to complete a deal worked out by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s staff and opponents of a 2017 law reforming Colorado’s civil asset forfeiture statutes sailed through the state Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.
The measure passed on a 5-0 vote despite losing one of its main sponsors.
House Bill 1020 is intended to put in place the recommendations of a task force, ordered last year by Hickenlooper.
The 2018 bill was intended to resolve some of the complaints raised last year when Hickenlooper signed a bill intended to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture system, House Bill 1313.
The heart of the 2017 bill, and what caused the most angst for law enforcement, was a requirement that law enforcement agencies that seize private property be barred from receiving the proceeds of those forfeitures valued at more than $50,000 and when those assets were tied to a federal criminal case. Assets of $50,000 or less would go through the existing state forfeiture system.
One of the complaints, from the Colorado Springs Police Department and others, was that the law would hurt already tight law enforcement budgets.
A police department representative told Colorado Politics last year that had the law been in place in 2012, the department would have lost federal equitable funding share on 85 percent of its cases.
The concern was that the 2017 reforms would result in less money and more red tape for local law enforcement agencies that work with the feds on asset forfeitures.
Also there was no guarantee of any money coming back to the local law enforcement agency involved in those cases.
Supporters claimed last year that Colorado’s civil asset forfeiture system was outdated and hinted it was ripe for abuse, because it gave police an opportunity to seize cash and/or other assets without a criminal conviction.
The 2017 law set up a reporting system that required local law enforcement to file reports to a state database on what they seize as well as the status of the criminal proceedings against the owner.
Hickenlooper was lobbied heavily by law enforcement and the Colorado Municipal League, among others, to veto the bill. Instead it was the last bill he signed from the 2017 session and on the very last day allowed for bill signings.
At the signing, Hickenlooper issued a lengthy statement, directing the state departments of public safety and local affairs to assemble a task force that would develop recommendations for the 2018 General Assembly on enhanced due process; how to route civil forfeiture proceedings to the right agency, whether federal or state; guidelines on how local law enforcement use funds collected through the federal “equitable sharing program”; and recommendations on how to improve the timelines and process for civil asset forfeitures.
He also asked the bill sponsors and backers to come up with legislation for 2018 that would set up a state grant program to make sure law enforcement was held whole, along with the money to back that up.
Hence this year’s House Bill 1020, which requires about $1.5 million for the grant program.
Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan told the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday that one result of the 2017 bill was that law enforcement would be unable to participate in joint task forces with federal law enforcement, such as for human trafficking or a drug ring, because it would be too expensive and without any opportunity to receive the proceeds from the seizure.
But the 2018 bill lost a crucial sponsor along the way. Republican Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton removed his name from the bill when it reached the Senate.
He told Colorado Politics he took his name off because of frustrations with civil forfeiture that arose from an arcade raid by the Denver Police Department in April. He complained that the DPD seized more than just the arcade games that violated state law (the games provided cash prizes and the owners were charged with violating state gaming laws).
“Once you seize people’s property,” such as a wallet of cash, “that’s their property and that’s civil forfeiture,” he said.
Sources told Colorado Politics the cash and equipment were both seized as evidence in a criminal case.
Neville said he also was concerned that the bill’s funding, which tapped marijuana tax revenues, was not what was agreed upon, although Kagan said he thought that was exactly what the task force decided.
Neville had been one of the sponsors of the 2017 law. And despite his misgivings about the funding source, he voted in favor of the 2018 bill in the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs.
The Wednesday hearing was the second this week for the bill; it also went through the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Monday, winning a 3-2 vote of support.
Republican Sen. Bob Gardner told the State Affairs Committee that the bill would provide “vital clarifications” to the 2017 law. He said many of the violations covered under civil asset seizures are tied to local ordinances, including those involving public nuisances.
The bill now moves on to Senate Appropriations.