GUEST OPINION: Why is civil asset forfeiture controversial?
Through civil asset forfeiture, the police are allowed to seize property that they suspect is connected to criminal activity, or that represents the profits of wrongdoing - all without convicting or charging the owner with a crime.
Cash, cars and even houses have been seized using this tool. But thanks to the work of conservative, libertarian and progressive activists in Colorado, the Centennial State now has much stronger restrictions on civil asset forfeiture that will protect the rights of innocent people.
On behalf of our Hispanic activists across Colorado, The LIBRE Initiative applauds Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Legislature for standing up for the rights of Coloradans on this important issue.
But a recent news article gives a lopsided account of the reform effort, citing the concerns of special interest groups, and labeling the idea that innocent people should not have their property seized without charges or convictions "controversial."
I'd like to understand what is controversial about it.
It should come as no surprise that the Hispanic community is concerned about civil asset forfeiture. Nationwide, the practice disproportionately harms Latinos and other minorities. While law enforcement in Colorado routinely blocks attempts to create reporting requirements that would reveal who is being hurt by forfeitures, data from other states bear out who the victims are.
In Oklahoma, for example, Hispanics make up less than 10 percent of the state's population, yet accounted for nearly a third of property forfeiture cases of at least $5,000 from 2010 to 2015.
In Florida, nearly one in four Hispanics say that either they or someone they know has had property seized by police without being charged with a crime - a rate four times higher than whites and African Americans.
Oddly enough, opponents of the new Colorado law seemed conflicted about whether they want the asset forfeiture laws already on the state's books to be enforced.
The Legislature passed an admirable set of reforms in 2002. But in the years since, a disturbing trend has emerged in which state laws are ignored because federal law is more lucrative. Through a loophole known as federal equitable sharing, Colorado law enforcement agencies have skirted local laws by handing over many forfeiture cases to the federal government, and seized more than $10 million in the process. Cash and property taken by police become subject to federal civil forfeiture law - not state law. Through the federal equitable sharing program, up to 80 percent of proceeds can be handed over to state and local police, providing a perverse incentive to seize property that goes far beyond the original intent of civil asset forfeiture.
Thankfully, the new law ends this loophole on forfeitures under $50,000 in value that are related to a filed criminal case.
The opposition to civil asset forfeiture reform comes primarily from sheriffs' groups, police unions and prosecutors' associations, all of which have a vested interest in the process. Ordinary Americans, on the other hand, oppose civil asset forfeiture by a margin of 84 percent to 16 percent, cutting across every demographic and political party. If that's not a consensus, what is?
As a former police officer, I respect the concerns of the law enforcement community, and the concerns of law enforcement must be taken into account. But I remember how motivated my colleagues and I were to seize the assets of suspects when the law allowed it.
Civil asset forfeiture reforms aimed at assisting the accused won't help convicted criminals or allow them to retain ill-gotten gains - but they will ensure proper constitutional rights are safeguarded for all.
Protecting the rights of the presumptively innocent is not an obstacle to law enforcement - it upholds the rule of law. Our Constitution guarantees that no person will be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Ensuring that Colorado law enforcement officers follow Colorado laws on civil asset forfeiture takes us a step closer to fulfilling that promise.
Colorado Hispanics should applaud the work of the state lawmakers and leaders who made this common-sense reform possible. Our rights should not be "controversial."
Daniel Garza is president of the LIBRE Initiative.