Colorado Senate Should Pass Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform
Letter from The LIBRE Initiative Supports House Bill 17-1313
(Denver, CO) – Today, the President of The LIBRE Initiative, Daniel Garza, called on the members of the Colorado Senate to support H.B. 17-1313 – which would bring much needed reform to civil asset forfeiture by allowing innocent property owners in Colorado to regain some of their fundamental liberties. View the following letter online here.
Dear Members of the Colorado Senate,
On behalf of The LIBRE Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit grassroots organization that advances the principles and values of economic freedom to empower the U.S. Hispanic community in Colorado, I urge the swift passage of House Bill 17-1313. This proposed bill would protect innocent property owners in Colorado from having their property seized through civil asset forfeiture by limiting the conditions under which seized property may be transferred to federal agencies, as well as create new reporting requirements that will enhance transparency and accountability.
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to seize property that they suspect is connected to criminal activity, or that represents the profits of wrongdoing—all without convicting or even charging the property owner with a crime. Cash, cars, and even houses have been seized under this program.
Nationwide, civil asset forfeiture disproportionately impacts Latinos and other minorities. It’s difficult to know the full scope of this impact because law enforcement has fought to avoid oversight and seldom keeps or publishes sufficiently detailed data on the victims of asset forfeiture. But studies in multiple states bear out who the victims are. In Oklahoma for example, Latinos make up only 10 percent of the state’s population, yet accounted for nearly a third of all property forfeiture cases of at least $5,000 from 2010-2015. And in Florida, one in four Hispanics say that either they or someone they know has had property seized by police without being charged with a crime. It’s no surprise then that, nationwide, a majority of Latino voters—and all voters, for that matter—oppose asset forfeiture.
Colorado deserves credit for reforms to the civil asset forfeiture process made in 2002, but in recent years, a disturbing trend has emerged that undermines the protections our state has given property owners. Through a loophole known as federal equitable sharing, Colorado law enforcement agencies can skirt local laws by handing over forfeiture cases to the federal government. Cash and property seized by police becomes subject to federal civil forfeiture law—not state law. Through the federal equitable sharing program, up to 80 percent of proceeds can be handed over to state and local police, providing a strong perverse incentive to seize property that goes far beyond the original intent of civil asset forfeiture. As with civil forfeiture under the laws of most states, no charges or convictions are required.
No matter which way this process is utilized, the core problem with equitable sharing remains: police in Colorado need not follow the laws passed by this legislature on civil asset forfeiture, even where they include more protections for property owners than the federal government. According to a ranking of state civil asset forfeiture policies by the Institute for Justice, the extent to which Colorado law enforcement has skirted our state’s laws by exploiting this loophole is enormous:
“Colorado law enforcement’s use of the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program, with proceeds totaling $47.7 million over the 2000 to 2013 calendar years, earns the state an equitable sharing ranking of 35th place. Seventy-six percent of assets seized and 82 percent of proceeds received through the DOJ’s equitable sharing program came from joint task forces and investigations.”
By comparison, the amount of money seized from Coloradans using the equitable sharing loophole is almost four times greater than the amount they were able to seize under our own laws.
H.B. 17-1313 will enhance transparency, as well as protect the rights of Colorado property owners by prohibiting seizing agencies from receiving forfeiture proceeds from the federal government unless the aggregate net equity value of the property and currency seized in the case is in excess of $50,000 and the federal government commences a forfeiture proceeding that relates to a filed criminal case.
This much needed reform to civil asset forfeiture will allow innocent property owners in Colorado to regain some of their fundamental liberties. The LIBRE Initiative supports this bill and urges its swift passage in the legislature.
President – The LIBRE Initiative