Denver Under Fire For Law That Critics Describe as Legalized ‘Car Stealing’
by Derek Gilna
Civil forfeiture, under fire at the state and federal levels the past two years, has faced the spotlight in the city of Denver, Colorado, where a particularly burdensome civil ordinance has resulted in millions of dollars of revenue flowing to the city from largely underserved people.
Based upon a “Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance,” it provides a “legal” tool for that city to confiscate automobiles and other property items even when the owner is found innocent of any crime.
Defendants can theoretically request a hearing in front of a judge to avoid this result. However, defense attorneys say that request is meaningless, given the low barrier for the prosecution in proving its case, which could easily result in the defendant losing his property and being assessed a substantial fine. To avoid this result, many defendants sign a stipulation, effectively agreeing to pay a “ransom” to the city to retrieve their property.
Greg Rawlings, a former city attorney who handled public nuisance prosecutions, and now a defense attorney, says that civil hearings are “meaningless. No one wins civil hearings on that. The standard of proof is too low.”
Not so, says current city prosecutor Kristin Brand, “It’s not being abused. No, this is an ordinance that’s been in place for 20 years, and it is a mechanism by which the city can discourage the use of vehicles in the commission of crimes and it works well.”
And, of course, the money it takes in pays a lot of city bills, generally from people who can ill afford to pay those fines.
According to Fox 31 in Denver, the city used that ordinance to “confiscate 1,821 cars in 2016 and made $2.4 million dollars in the process. This year, Denver is on pace to seize more than 2,000 cars.”
Consider the case of Semere Fremichael, a Denver taxi driver for 28 years, who was acquitted of soliciting an undercover police officer in a prostitution sting, but was still hit with a civil forfeiture of his Toyota Prius under the “Class A Public Nuisance” ordinance, despite his acquittal.
According to his defense attorney, Richard Gross, he had no choice but to sign a civil stipulation before that trial. “If he refused to sign that stipulation and was found guilty at a civil hearing, he would end up losing approximately $6,000 and the vehicle would be impounded for between six months and a year,” so he agreed instead to pay a $1,000 fine and wait 30 days to retrieve his car and get back to work.
“The city has him over a barrel,” Gross said. “Once they steal his car, which is in effect what they did, they have him over a barrel and it’s unfortunate that the city is so desperate to take money from working class people.”
Colorado Representative Leslie Herod agreed: “It doesn’t sound fair. It doesn’t sound right, and we’re going to have to rein it in.”
The Denver House Democrat helped pass House Bill 1313 this year, which is designed to limit civil asset forfeitures and provide due process protections, according to Herod.