Colorado’s Tough New Forfeiture Law Provides Real Police Oversight, Transparency

SeizureColorado just made it harder for police to take and keep people's stuff without proving they've committed a crime, and they're making sure that citizens know when and how such seizures are happening.

Civil asset forfeiture is the mechanism by which police and prosecutors seize the property of people suspected of crimes. The key word here is suspected: For your property to be taken, you needn't be convicted or technically even charged with a crime. Since police get to keep the forfeited property, they have a financial incentivize to try to take assets with no real evidence of criminal activity. Frequently, for example, the authorities will insist that travelers carrying large amounts of cash must be involved with the drug trade; police then attempt to keep the money even when they can't even prove any underlying drug ties.

Last week Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed some significant reforms to this system. The new law doesn't eliminate civil asset forfeiture, unfortunately; police still don't need to a secure a conviction to seize property. What this new legislation does do is make it much easier for citizens to know how Colorado's cops use their asset forfeiture tools. The law requires law enforcement agencies to regularly report what it has seized, where they took it, and how they've spent the money they thus acquired. Furthermore, all this information will have to be made public in a searchable online database. That will help track whether police are abusing their authority or targeting particular areas for forfeiture. (Check out C.J. Ciaramella's data-centric reporting earlier today showing how Chicago police seem to be targeting poorer communities with forfeiture efforts.) These requirements come with teeth: Agencies that don't keep up with their reporting requirements will be fined and can end up losing half of what they've taken.

But wait, there's more! The new law also makes it harder for Colorado law enforcement to bypass the rules by turning to the Department of Justice.

Through the "equitable sharing" program, local law enforcement agencies have been able to partner with the feds on busts and run forfeiture through the Department of Justice, skipping state rules entirely. The Department of Justice has laxer rules and allows police to keep more seized property than the State of Colorado allows. That might be why, according to the Institute of Justice, Colorado law enforcement agencies received four times as much money and assets—totaling $42 million—under the federal forfeiture program than under the state's own program from 2000 to 2013.

Under the new rules, law enforcement agencies in Colorado may not turn to the federal asset forfeiture program for any seizures worth less than $50,000. That threshold is a huge deal. Asset forfeiture defenders like to portray the system as a way of going after the funds and assets of major drug dealers and crime lords. In reality, most of the targets are lower-level people (or completely innocent ones). The Institute for Justice calculated that 92 percent of all forfeitures Colorado has run through the federal program were worth less than $50,000. Colorado is the seventh state to set up rules reining in local police's power to bypass state-level forfeiture restrictions by turning to the feds.

The Institute for Justice has now named Colorado the top state in the country for transparency in how asset forfeiture is used to take property and how that money is spent. They're given Colorado an A- for transparency and tracking of forfeitures. They're the only state in the A range.