On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill into law expanding asset forfeiture reporting requirements instituted last year.
Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) introduced House Bill 1020 (HB1020) on Jan. 10. The legislation expands asset forfeiture reporting requirements by redefining the agencies required to submit reports.
Last year, Hickenlooper signed a bill into law that instituted extensive reporting requirements for any agency seizing property under the state’s asset forfeiture laws. It also took a big step toward closing a loophole allowing prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government. This was particularly important in light of a policy directive issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The law passed last year requires “seizing agencies” to submit extensive forfeiture reports. Under HB1020, any “reporting agency” defined as “any state or local entity that employs a person, other than a judge or magistrate, who is authorized to effectuate a forfeiture of real or personal property” will now have to submit reports. The new law also specifically includes the office of a district attorney and local law enforcement agencies. This broader definition will ensure all agencies involved in the forfeiture process are included in the reporting requirements.
By increasing transparency, HB1020 allows Coloradans to see the reality of asset forfeiture more clearly. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best antiseptic. Transparency often creates the momentum needed to drive future change.
The enactment of this bill reveals an important truth. First steps generally lead to second steps. The bill passed by the Colorado legislature last year certainly wasn’t perfect, but it created a foundation for this expansion of the reporting requirements. Now the state legislature has expanded the existing law and increased transparency over the state’s asset forfeiture process further. This will hopefully lead to even more substantive reforms in the future.
HB1020 also includes provisions creating a law enforcement assistance grant program in the department of public safety to reimburse seizing agencies for revenue lost due to the state closing a federal loophole. Police departments that can show they missed out on equitable sharing proceeds due to the new law will be able to apply for these grants.
COLORADO OPT OUT
While Colorado asset forfeiture laws don’t provide the level of protection they should, they are stricter than federal law. The IJ gives Colorado forfeiture laws a C. Colorado statutes do include a high bar to forfeit property, but they do not require a criminal conviction. They also provide relatively robust protections for innocent third-party property owners, and law enforcement can only keep up to 50 percent of proceeds.
With these relatively stringent policies in place, police have an incentive to pass cases to the feds in order to circumvent them. Unsurprisingly, the state ranks 15th in the country in the amount of federal asset forfeiture money it brings in, totaling $47.7 million over the 2000 to 2013 calendar years.
The new law prohibits Colorado law enforcement agencies from transferring seized property to a federal agency unless it has a net value of more than $50,000. It also prohibits state and local police from accepting payment or distribution from a federal agency of all, or part of, any forfeiture proceeds resulting from the adoption, a joint task force, or other multijurisdictional collaboration, unless the aggregate net equity value of the property and currency seized in the case is in excess of $50,000, the case is commenced by the federal government, and it relates to a filed criminal case.
Over the last five years, 85 percent of the $2 million in seizures received through the federal equitable sharing program did not meet the $50,000 threshold, according to the Colorado Municipal League, Additionally, IJ reports that 82 percent of proceeds received through the DOJ’s equitable sharing program came from joint task forces and investigations.
Tenth Amendment Center Executive Director Michael Boldin said changes made by HB1313 will be significant.
While we’d like to see Colorado and every other state completely opt out of this federal program, an 80-85% reduction in seizures through this federal scheme will be a huge step forward to nullify it in practice and effect.