Sunday, March 8, 2009

When Cops Do It

American Scofflaw
If the County Sheriffs of Colorado has its way, law-enforcement agencies will soon be able to take your house, cars, cash and jewelry, sell it off and divvy up the proceeds quietly and privately among themselves. This organization, which lobbies for the interests of sheriffs across the state, is the force behind House Bill 1238, which rolls back a 2002 law guaranteeing Colorado residents reasonable protections against “asset forfeiture” — a fancy legal term for when the cops use the force of law to take your stuff.

The idea behind asset forfeiture is to deprive criminals of property used to commit crimes and the money they make by breaking the law. Think of a coke kingpin with several houses, a yacht, a few helicopters, lots of guns and ammo, as well as a fleet of fancy cars.

When he’s busted, the empire that cocaine built is taken from him, liquidated and put toward paying for the expense that went into bringing him down. Fair enough, right?

When it comes to drug kingpins, asset forfeiture seems just and reasonable. But every law has unintended consequences. Prior to 2002, the state’s asset forfeiture law too often resulted in property and cash being taken from innocent men and women — people who either hadn’t committed a crime or who were arrested but later acquitted. Further, the law gave law-enforcement officers a financial incentive to see every arrest as a potential opportunity for profit.

Consider the single mom who loaned her car to her cousin — only to lose it after the police pulled her cousin over and discovered marijuana seeds and a wad of cash hidden in the vehicle. It didn’t matter that the car didn’t belong to the cousin or that the woman was innocent or that losing the car was a major financial blow to her. The police sold the vehicle and pocketed the cash.

Then there was the disabled man who, prior to the state’s medical marijuana law, was busted for growing a couple of pot plants in his house. He wasn’t a dealer; he didn’t sell dope to school kids. Instead, he used marijuana to control his chronic pain. The police checked county records and saw that he’d paid off his mortgage with settlement money from the accident that deprived him of his mobility. After discovering how much money was tied up in his house, they started forfeiture proceedings, depriving a man with no job and no ability to work of his home at great profit to their agency.

And what about the Mexican worker who came here legally to help build Denver International Airport? He bought a ticket home and boarded a plane with $15,000 in hard-earned cash. Police searched him and found the cash. They discovered no drugs on him or in his luggage. Nor did they find any evidence that the money came from the commission of a crime. But because a drug-sniffing dog reacted to the money, they decided to keep it, even though studies have shown that 99 percent of bills in circulation are tainted with the scent of illegal drugs. After the man hired an attorney, he got 40 percent of his wages back, but the cops kept the other 60 percent because they could.

The above are real incidents provided to Boulder Weekly by attorneys who worked to get the 2002 reform bill passed and signed into law. (See “Pirate police,” cover story, March 21, 2002.) It was incidents like these that brought people together from the left and the right and all points in between to change state law to protect individual property rights and discourage abuses by law-enforcement agencies

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