Aurora cops, lawmakers grumble about new asset seizure rules

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AURORA | A fund police use to purchase much of their pricey equipment — including police motorcycles, bullet-resistant vests and license plate readers — could take  a dramatic hit in coming months, police officials say.

Bipartisan legislation Gov. Jon Hickenlooper signed into law this year restricts how police can use assets seized as part of joint investigations with federal law enforcement. If the amount seized isn’t at least $50,000, the law bars local police from accepting the money.

Police can still seize assets in state court cases, but they need to secure a conviction before they can use those funds.

Aurora police Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe told city council’s Public Safety Committee last week that the change could mean a big hit to APD spending. Rarely, O’Keefe said, do the cases APD handles seize $50,000 or more in those federal cases.

Between 2016 and 2017, Aurora police spent more than $260,000 in federal money on equipment, including three new motorcycles for the traffic unit.

O’Keefe said the money is often spread among local jurisdictions who work together in regional task forces targeting gangs or drug rings, so Aurora’s piece of an investigation may only be a few thousand dollars.

One of those task forces seized more than $300,000 in assets in 2015, but just one of the cases was worth more than $50,000, a drug case worth $131,000. Under the new rules, local police would not have been eligible for the remaining roughly $160,000 seized that year.

Aurora police spokeswoman Officer Diana Cooley said it is hard to predict how much of a hit APD’s budget will take because of the measure APD can’t predict the sorts of cases they will have.

But, Cooley said, the department has never counted on the money for things like police salaries, other ongoing expenses because it’s always a volatile funding source that can fluctuate significantly from one year to the next.

Supporters of the measure — which included a bipartisan group of cosponsors as well as civil liberties groups — argued asset forfeiture can be unfair.

Denise Maes, Public Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said in a letter this summer urging Hickenlooper to sign the measure that it passed by wide margins because residents are leery of police seizing property.

“Coloradans want and deserve stronger protections when property is taken by police,” the letter said.

“Opponents argue that HB 1313 will make crime fighting more difficult because if there are less forfeiture actions under federal law, local law enforcement agencies will get less money and, therefore, not be able to fight crime. This position is untenable and frankly, I’m surprised this argument is asserted with such vigor,” Maes wrote. “Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. This argument by the opponents underscores the problem with forfeiture in that many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.”

Still, city council members said they were frustrated with state lawmakers for making the switch.

“It’s pretty crazy to me,” said Aurora Councilman Bob LeGare.

LeGare said it was odd that a plan so unpopular at city hall proved popular at the state level.

“Both sides of the aisle think it’s a great idea,” he said.

Councilman Bob Roth said it was especially frustrating because the law won’t stop the federal government from seizing the assets. It merely stops them from sharing with local police.

“It’s nice that the state legislature took money away from us and gave it to the feds,” he said.