Illegal Pot Issues Complicate Colorado Asset Forfeiture Reform
By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena
Despite the initial reform of Colorado’s civil asset forfeiture laws in 2002, the state received an average rating on a recent “Judicial Reform” scorecard produced by FreedomWorks for America, a prominent pro-liberty organization.
FreedomWorks for America, a national think tank focused on justice and limited government, has made asset forfeiture a focal point of its research on judicial reform efforts in the individual states. Colorado received a mediocre grade from FreedomWorks on its scorecard titled, “Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States.”
According to the scorecard, Colorado’s “C” grade results from a standard of proof that needs to be improved. FreedomWorks suggests that Colorado law place the onus on law-enforcement agencies to show clear and convincing evidence of guilt before asset seizures can proceed.
Prior to Colorado’s asset forfeiture reforms in 2002, 100 percent of the proceeds from civil asset forfeitures could be held by law-enforcement agencies. Under existing Colorado statute, law-enforcement retains 50 percent of forfeiture funds, which, as stated by FreedomWorks, “…creates incentives for agencies to self-fund.”
In January of 2015, Attorney General Eric Holder announced new rules limiting “equitable sharing,” or divvying up of the proceeds that come from cooperative actions in which local law-enforcement assists the federal government in property seizures. According to a report in the Washington Post, the DOJ’s equitable sharing program has produced $3 billion in revenue since 2008.
Even with the reforms of 2002, however, Colorado’s current statute allows, in certain circumstances, law-enforcement seizure of assets to proceed without a trial. The same month Attorney General Holder made his announcement, Senator Laura Woods, of Arvada, introduced a bill, SB-006, which would further reform Colorado’s existing asset forfeiture statute, requiring a conviction on relevant charges before the confiscation of civil assets could proceed.
Senator Woods’ “Limitations on Asset Forfeitures” bill also limited the ability of state law-enforcement personnel to legally participate in asset forfeitures initiated by the Federal Government.
On February 25, 2015, after hours of testimony from citizens supporting the bill, and numerous law-enforcement personnel from around the state opposing changes to existing statute, the Senate Judiciary Committee killed the bill. Senator Lucia Guzman of Denver based her opposition to the bill upon the fact that a portion of funding for human trafficking interdiction efforts comes from asset forfeitures.
But civil asset forfeiture reform in Colorado may be complicated by more than resistance from law-enforcement agencies who depend upon proceeds from property seizures.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, forfeitures from marijuana cases in Colorado totaled nearly $18 million between 2002 and 2012. The relevant question for Colorado, since the legalization of small amounts of recreational marijuana for adults in 2012, is whether or not asset forfeitures have decreased since that time.
As of 2015 there are no clear metrics indicating a reverse in revenues from asset forfeitures, primarily because illegal marijuana trafficking from Colorado to other states has complicated the overall issue. According to the annual report of “Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” on February 20 of 2014, $2.1 million in assets was seized in one sting operation where marijuana traffickers were operating illegally, using Colorado Medical Marijuana laws as a guise.
FreedomWorks’ middling “C” grade for Colorado’s asset forfeiture laws also reflects new pressures on the state resulting from legalized pot. Pro-legalization groups use projected decreases in asset forfeitures by law-enforcement as an argument for expanded legalization of marijuana.
But illegal drug trafficking in Colorado has not noticeably decreased, and law-enforcement’s dependence on asset seizure as both a tool for prosecution and a means of funding makes drastic reform of current laws increasingly problematic.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.
Reposted with permission of the author 5/25/15