Responding to constituents’ concerns, a Colorado state lawmaker is aiming to rein in a controversial program allowing police to confiscate and sell citizens’ private property without search warrants or a criminal conviction.
In 1984 the federal Comprehensive Crime Control Act created a method for local and national law enforcement agencies to split proceeds from the sales of seized assets. In 2008, this program, the national Asset Sharing Program, collected $1 billion in seized currency and property—a 968 percent increase over the program’s size in 1986.
Colorado state Sen. Laura Woods (R-Arvada) has introduced a bill, House Bill 006, to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. She says the bill will help protect Coloradoans’ constitutional rights.
‘Seizing for Salaries’
“I was spurred by complaints from citizens who are watching what’s going on across the country. As there is more policing-for-profit and seizing-for-salaries—as they say—they were contacting me with concerns,” she said.
“In my bill, there would have to be a conviction before a forfeiture action can be instituted, in every case,” she said. “Parties who have had items seized would have the right to a preliminary hearing, or writ of replevin, to determine the validity of the seizure or require the return of the property.”
Woods’ bill includes additional restrictions on civil asset forfeitures.
“We have set a $50,000 threshold—meaning that the alleged criminal has to have at least $50,000 worth of assets, excluding the value of street drugs—for the local law enforcement to be able to call in federal law enforcement,” she said. “The federal law enforcement agencies do not have a conviction requirement, so they can scoop up assets and sell them without the citizen being first convicted. We’ve built in this $50,000 threshold to try and de-incentivize it.
“The executive branch, in the form of law enforcement, is both raising and spending money without the legislature’s check. I think that’s a violation of the separation of powers that’s called for in our Constitution,” she said.
Law Enforcement Agencies ‘Howling’
Although reaction from voters has been positive, Woods said not everyone is a fan of her bill.
“We’ve got a mix of reactions. The marijuana industry, the gun owners, the Campaign for Liberty groups, the Institute for Justice, the Libertarians, Our America Initiative,… these groups are very supportive of this bill. The liberty-minded legislators are very, very excited about this,” she said. “The cops, the district attorneys, and the state Attorney General are all howling, because, you know,… ‘You’re going to take away our money.'”
Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum says Woods’ bill is a step in the right direction.
“The central problem is the very idea of civil forfeiture, meaning that you can take away somebody’s property without even charging him with a crime, let alone convicting him,” he said. “True forfeiture reform means getting rid of civil forfeiture entirely, meaning that you would need a criminal conviction in order to seize and confiscate property associated with crime.”
Sullum said he was unsurprised by local law enforcement agencies’ reaction to Woods’ bill.
“Well, they like the money,” he said. “You take away what for them is a windfall, of course they are going to object. I’ve seen some law enforcement people, for example the National Sheriffs Association, say this threatens public safety, because if we don’t have forfeiture, we are not going to have enough money for our essential operations.
“If that is true, that is really a scandal,” Sullum said.
Kelsey Hackem ([email protected]) writes from Columbus, Ohio.
“Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture,” Dick M. Carpenter II and Larry Salzman, Institute for Justice, http://heartland.org/policy-documents/seize-first-question-later-irs-and-civil-forfeiture/