The city of Denver has recently come under fire from local activists for its civil asset forfeiture laws after an investigation published by Denver’s Fox News affiliate.
The investigation looked at the city’s practices of property confiscation under a statute called the Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance, which allows the city of Denver to confiscate property from individuals accused of crimes for which they might later be judged innocent. Although the ordinance is not new by any means, it has recently come into contention after the Denver attorney’s office made $2.4 million in car seizures last year.
One of those seizures included 57-year-old Eritrean immigrant Semere Fremichael. A taxi driver in Denver for 28 years, Fremichael was arrested this past April during an undercover prostitution sting. An undercover police officer attempted to make a transaction with Fremichael, who did not take the bait. He was pulled over and arrested anyway. Although he was later acquitted of the prostitution charge, that didn’t stop his car from being seized by the city. However, Fremichael was forced to sign a civil stipulation before his lawyer was able to prove his innocence.
“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,” said Fremichael’s attorney Richard Gross. Instead, he agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and wait a month to get his car back. Fremichael estimates his total losses to be about $2,500 in total, counting his lost income from a lack of vehicle.
The Denver Fox affiliate’s investigation revealed that the City of Denver confiscated 1,821 cars in 2016 under the Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance for a profit of $2.4 million. The city is expected to seize even more cars this year.
The underlying theory of the Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance strikes a similar tone with other civil asset forfeiture laws around the country, in that the City of Denver is trying to deny individuals the use of property that might further criminal activity. Thus, the city has defined certain “nuisances” which fall under this ordinance that provide the basis for property to be seized. Although the categories are explicitly defined, the scope is very wide. Some examples include: gang-related activity, habitual traffic offenses, sexual assaults, speed contents, professional gambling, prostitution, and two or more noise offenses within a 180-day period.
Denver’s City Attorney, Kristin Bronson, denies any misuse of the civil ordinance. “It’s not being abused…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’s works well.” She pointed out that defendants can ask for a civil hearing before a judge if they don’t want to settle the violation.
But all that doesn’t stop people like Semere Fremichael from feeling wronged. “To steal a man’s livelihood when he’s found not guilty is the most despicable abuse of power that the city can exert,” said attorney Richard Gross.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney