Family speaks out about civil asset forfeiture; governor calls for task force after signing bill

Posted at 4:30 AM, Jun 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-14 06:30:32-04

DENVER — Governor John Hickenlooper is calling for the state’s executive branch to establish an internal task force to develop suggestions for the Colorado General Assembly regarding implementation of civil asset forfeiture reform. This comes after Hickenlooper signed a controversial bill on this subject last Friday.

HB 17-1313 passed the legislature in May with overwhelming and bi-partisan support. The bill’s passing sets the groundwork for reporting and building a public database on how seizures and forfeitures are working in Colorado. Colorado became the 22nd state in the U.S. to reform forfeiture laws and the 8th state to protect state sovereignty from smaller seizures under $50,000.

The Wagner family shared their story with Denver7 about secretly being investigated over an 18 month period and having their property seized. Law enforcement arrested and charged Burt Wagner with operating a money transmodal business without a license. Burt said he was trading Bitcoin as a hobby at the time. The Wagner family was able to get their property back and have their name cleared, but said they had to pay $250,000 in the process.

Governor Hickenlooper provided a statement after signing HB 17-1313 and underscored his rationale for a task force:

“The group will present recommendations to the General Assembly to inform future legislation including: (1) enhanced Due Process protections; (2) criteria to determine how best to direct civil forfeiture proceedings to the appropriate authority – federal or state; (3) guidelines for how local law enforcement agencies use funds collected through federal equitable sharing programs; and (4) process and timeline improvements for civil asset forfeitures under Colorado law."

Advocates for reform have praised Colorado’s new law.  Lee McGrath, Senior Legislative Counsel and Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice Minnesota, described HB 17-1313 as “the best reporting and transparency law in the nation.” McGrath believes asset forfeiture should come only after a conviction and hails Colorado’s new law in promoting due process. McGrath highlights the new law’s role in shedding light on when the state should be permitted to take title to the “fruits” of crime and also regarding what agencies the profits should go to. McGrath has lobbied for reforms to forfeiture laws in states across the country.

The state departments leading the task force effort include the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA).