DENVER – For years, police have been able to seize houses, cars and other property from their owners if the items are linked to illegal activity -- even if the owner hasn't been charged with a crime.
Democratic Sen. Bill Thiebaut and Republican Rep. Shawn Mitchell are introducing legislation this week to limit that power after years of complaints of police abuse in Colorado and two years after Congress passed a law limiting the federal government's forfeiture power.
Colorado is one of the latest states to revamp its law.
"It's inappropriate for law enforcement to seize and liquidate people's property before they are convicted of a crime," said Thiebaut, the Senate majority leader from Pueblo.
Mitchell, of Broomfield, said, "I have the firm belief it's a dangerous power subject to abuse, and it needs to be restrained."
Often an owner whose property is seized never gets it back, even if they are acquitted. Some police and sheriff's departments use the property for undercover work. Others have sold property and used the proceeds for pizzas, parties, and in the case of one department, an aquarium.
Thiebaut and Mitchell's proposal would require that the property and proceeds from civil forfeitures go to places such as treatment programs and to innocent co-owners, such as family members.
It also would require that, in most cases, a property owner be convicted of a crime prior to forfeiture.
Seizing cars, houses and other assets acquired with drug money began as a means for law enforcement to cripple the drug trade.
State regulators have no idea where most of the property or proceeds go.
A review of every filing since 1992 found that six law enforcement agencies out of potentially 100 that might have received forfeited property have filed a required annual report of the seizures, said Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.