Why asset forfeiture reform riles sheriffs and police chiefs


If there is any lingering doubt as to the extent to which the war on drugs has corrupted the American criminal justice system, consider the reaction of Colorado law enforcement to the passage of House Bill 1313.

House Bill 1313, which was signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper last Friday, is a compromise civil asset forfeiture reform bill that the Colorado Legislature passed this session. The measure, which had strong bipartisan support, does four things:

1) It requires law enforcement agencies and DAs to report twice a year to the state Department of Local Affairs how their agencies came by the proceeds from any forfeitures they received and how they used the boodle — including how much was spent on snitches, expert witnesses, vehicles, firearms, computers, furniture, meals, entertainment, training conferences, etc.

2) It requires the seizing agencies to file their reports by specified dates. If they fail to file or file late, they will be subject to civil penalties — a $500 fine if the report is 30 days late and a fine of up to 50 percent of the value of the property seized during the reporting period if its 75 days late.

3) The bill directs the Department of Local Affairs executive director to submit an annual report on seizure and forfeiture activity in Colorado to the Governor, the Colorado Attorney General and the judiciary committees of the legislature.

4) The bill prohibits the 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.”

As reform bills go, this one seems pretty modest, but that didn’t keep Colorado sheriffs and police chiefs organizations, along with the Colorado Municipal League, from (unsuccessfully) mounting a full-court press to get Hickenlooper to veto the measure.

That’s because even the modest reforms in House Bill 1313 stand to derail law enforcement’s and local governments’ asset forfeiture gravy train.

Civil asset forfeiture involves the seizure of money and property from people suspected of being linked to crime — sometimes before someone is even charged, never mind convicted. Sometimes the “linkage” is pretty indirect — like seizing a rented house that was turned into a marijuana grow facility without the knowledge of the owner, or seizing the car a pot dealer borrowed from his girlfriend to go to a deal.

“Government should never keep assets seized from innocent people,” Hickenlooper said in a written statement issued when he signed the bill.

Both Colorado law and federal law allow asset forfeiture, but Colorado law is more restrictive as to when and how seizures can take place. Colorado law enforcement agencies have evidently gotten around the state restrictions by getting the feds to do the seizing. The feds then split the plunder with the locals.

This is why the local sheriffs and chiefs organizations and the municipal league got their shorts in a knot over the provision of House Bill 1313 that bars them from receiving forfeited money and property from the feds that falls below the $50,000 threshold.

According to the Colorado Springs Police Department, had House Bill 1313 been in place since 2012, the department wouldn’t have received a share of the seizures grabbed under federal law in 85 percent of its cases. Colorado Springs officers spent over 42,000 hours investigating cases with federal partners, the department said.

Those numbers explain a lot about what the war on drugs and asset forfeiture are doing to law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Follow the money. The bounty from asset forfeiture goes a long way toward explaining why a police department will devote 42,000 man hours to chasing drug dealing, an activity whose violence is almost entirely the product of drug prohibition, instead of focusing on non-drug-related crimes like murders, robberies, rapes and burglaries, which don’t produce much in the way of seizable assets.

Follow the money. The ongoing asset forfeiture windfall also may explain why so many police chiefs and sheriffs oppose marijuana legalization, even though they know from personal experience that marijuana is less harmful than booze, and marijuana prohibition is a failure.

Follow the money. The proceeds from the seizures go to the investigating agencies. That explains why asset forfeiture looks more like buccaneering than law enforcement.