The Colorado House Judiciary Committee will consider Thursday what has to be the most outrageous bill proposed in this session of the Colorado General Assembly, and perhaps in the last several years. House Bill 1238 would more than undo a law that received widespread bipartisan support in 2002, which prevents law enforcement from keeping the assets and proceeds from forfeitures, even when a suspect has been acquitted in court.
Loose translation: The new bill would allow law enforcement to take your home, your car, and your grandmother's jewelry on the mere suspicion you committed a crime, and they could keep it regardless of an acquittal by a jury of your peers or a dismissal of the criminal case by prosecutors. It's a bill that says, in essence, you're guilty if accused.
Before 2002, a crime suspect could be forced to forfeit cash, real estate, cars, etc., if it was believed the property had been involved in a crime or was paid for with the proceeds of criminal activity. The assets were sold, and proceeds typically went to fund the agencies involved in the confiscation.
The problem involved the fact that some people accused of and arrested for crimes have their innocence upheld in court. When that happens, there's no moral justification whatsoever for that person losing everything. But in many cases they did. Despite their innocence, law enforcement had already sold the property or refused to give it back. Forfeiture, a civil action, required only "a preponderance of evidence," while criminal convictions require proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Legislators in 2002 heard of innocent former suspects who had lost everything. They responded by passing a bill that increased the standard for forfeiture to "clear and convincing evidence," which shifted the proof needed for forfeiture onto government. It meant that suspects found not guilty didn't lose their houses and cars and jewelry. The 2002 law also requires that proceeds from forfeitures be allocated through the appropriate budgeting entities. If the county sheriff conducts the arrest and forfeiture the proceeds must be distributed by county commissioners, and do not go directly into the sheriff's coffer without process. Proceeds of police department forfeitures are distributed by the requisite city councils.
The 2002 reforms made so much common sense they passed with 51-11 bipartisan support in the House, 23-10 in the Senate, and then-Gov. Bill Owens signed the bill into law. It received the votes of all but one member the El Paso County legislative delegation, including Reps. Dave Schultheis, Bill Cadman, Bill Sinclair, Mark Cloer, Doug Dean, Richard Decker, Keith King, Lynn Hefley, and Sens. Doug Lamborn, Ron May and Andy McElhaney. The bill received the enthusiastic endorsement of the three largest newspapers in Colorado, and others. It had support from major political think tanks and advocacy organizations, on the left, the right, and points in between.
It received strong bipartisan support because it's phenomenally stupid, and immoral, to confiscate the property of an innocent party. It goes against one of the most fundamental principles that guides our nation: Innocent until proven guilty. And how innocent are people when mere suspicion costs them their homes, cars, and everything else they own?
But some members of the County Sheriffs of Colorado liked things the way they were. It's easy to understand why. Confiscations without convictions equal a great source of easy revenue.
So the County Sheriffs of Colorado have asked that the wonderful and necessary reforms of 2002 be overturned. A bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Rice, D-Glendale, and co-sponsored by Rep. Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, would gut the most important provision of the 2002 bill, removing these words: "No judgment of forfeiture proceeding shall be entered unless and until an owner of the property is convicted of an offense."
Apparently, Rice and Shaffer think it's too extreme to wait for a conviction before taking everything a citizen has worked for, including the roof over his head.
But that's not all. The bill would also undo the requirement that forfeiture proceeds go through elected budgeting entities, such as county commissions and city councils, and would eliminate all reporting requirements.
Opposition to the bill includes major political advocacy organizations on the right, the left, and points in between. Already it's opposed by the Independence Institute (right), the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (bipartisan), the ACLU (left/middle/right), the Criminal Defense Bar (center-left), the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission (left), the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (left), the Colorado Union of Taxpayers (right), and the Colorado Libertarian Party.
The bill will go before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, which includes three representatives from Colorado Springs, Republicans Bob Gardner, Mark Waller and Democrat Dennis Apuan. If you think Americans should be considered innocent until proven guilty, then please call Gardner and Waller and ask them to oppose this outrageous, un-American bill.
Contact Rep. Gardner at 303-866-2191, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Rep. Waller at 303-866-5525,email@example.com; and Rep. Dennis Apuan at 303-866-3069. firstname.lastname@example.org.