Civil Asset Forfeiture

Denver Cashes in by Seizing Cars for Low-Level Crimes, Even Without Convictions

The city earns more than $2 million a year grabbing more than 1,800 vehicles.


Body camera footage
Denver Police body camera footage

Denver cab driver Semere Fremichael got caught up in an undercover prostitution sting. He was innocent—he thought she wanted a ride, not sex for pay—and was acquitted by a judge.

His taxi, however, got taken for a rough ride. Denver's Fox affiliate has an excellent two-part investigation showing how the city attorney's office is using civil asset forfeiture to cash in by snatching vehicles like Fremichael's for even low-level crimes, and even when their owners aren't convicted.

In 2016, Denver made more than $2.4 million, seizing more than 1,800 vehicles enforcing the civil forfeiture component of its public nuisance abatement laws. Civil forfeiture is a controversial procedure that allows cities (and states and the federal government) to seize and keep somebody's assets and property without actually convicting them of a crime.

Denver put the screws to Fremichael, according to Fox reporter Rob Low, offering him a civil version of a plea deal: He could get the car back in 30 days if he gave them $1,000. Or he could demand a civil hearing. If he lost, it would cost him $6,000 and he could lose the car for a year. He took the deal, and says he probably lost an additional $2,500 because he couldn't use his cab for a month, even though he committed no crime.

City Attorney Kristin Bronson defends the seizure of these cars on camera, but doesn't acquit herself well (pun unintended). Bronson insists she isn't abusing forfeiture because the ordinance has been around for 20 years. Which could mean Denver has been abusing the law for a long time.

She also defended the citizen hearing process, which worked out rather poorly for Fremichael. Much like criminal plea bargains, Fremichael was put in a position to accept a small penalty or risk facing an even worse punishment. The risks are even higher for Fremichael because civil trials and hearings use lower evidence standards. It was easier for Fremichael to lose his car in a civil hearing than for him to be convicted of soliciting prostitution.

Low and his team, having talked to two municipal judges, could find no cases out of the hundreds of seizures every year of citizens requesting a hearing. Bronson argued that this was evidence that the system works and is proof that the city was offering "fair settlements."

But as a sharp cotntrast to Bronson's claim, Low also interviewed Greg Rawling, a former city attorney who used to prosecute these public nuisance cases for Denver. Rawling told Fox, on camera, the city seized the cars "because they can" and said they were in it for the money.

Another important contrast: The Denver district attorney's office generally requires a conviction before seizing and keeping somebody's vehicle, Fox reported. As a result, their office seized five cars, compared to the city's 1,821, in 2016.

Colorado earlier this year passed some civil asset forfeiture reforms that increased forfeiture transparency and made it harder for police to participate in the federal asset forfeiture sharing program for low-level cases. But that doesn't apply here to what Denver is doing. Fox also interviewed a state representative who helped usher in these asset forfeiture law reforms. She's on a task force to consider additional changes to forfeiture laws, and she makes it clear Denver's behavior has her very concerned.

Watch both parts of Low's investigation here. Kudos, by the way, for how Low and Fox news handled this investigation and story. Local news outlets have a reputation for simply swallowing what police and prosecutors say on crime-fighting and asset forfeiture methods and parroting back the official line. This Fox piece does not, and they do an excellent job getting to the heart of the weird and complex operations of asset forfeiture in a way that's easy for viewers to understand.

These details are very important when we have folks like Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein trying to convince Americans that asset forfeiture is all about fighting the Bernie Madoffs of the world. What happened to Fremichael is the more likely outcome when citizens do not get strong due process protections for their property.

Bonus link: The City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been similarly aggressive in trying to seize cars and has been sued over it.

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  1. He thought she wanted a ride, and she thought he wanted a ride. Hilarity ensued.

    1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do…

  2. Also, Christ, what a bunch of asset-seizing-holes.

  3. He was innocent?he thought she wanted a ride,

    that’s the story I always go with.

    1. True story: I was on a business trip with time to kill, so I was checking out the local thrift shops. I’m getting ready to leave (in my rental) when this down-on-her-luck-looking, older, woman asked me if I could give a her a lift down the road to her residence as she lacked bus fare. Well, who else hangs out at thrift shops but yuppies and down-on-their-luck people? So I agreed. We made small talk, I drove to a nearby trailer park and _then_ she propositions me. No. No no. No no no no no no no. I couldn’t leave that place fast enough. My mind raced at how my charity was about to be turned into me sitting in a cell trying to figure out how to explain this to my wife.

      Thankfully, that good deed went unpunished. Screw poor people, and you can thank gub’mint for that.

  4. Denver put the screws to Fremichael, according to Fox reporter Rob Low, offering him a civil version of a plea deal: He could get the car back in 30 days if he gave them $1,000. Or he could demand a civil hearing. If he lost, it would cost him $6,000 and he could lose the car for a year.

    The city has altered the deal. Pray they do not alter it further.

  5. Civil forfeiture is a controversial procedure

    The word is “robbery”, Scott. What’s with this mealy-mouthed bullshit? Do you think you’re writing for the NYT or something?


    1. And this: “The city earns more than $2 million a year …”

      Angling for that WaPo job?

  6. Why won’t reason just come right out and state their position on asset forfeiture? I’m sure it’s because Shackleford thinks it’s great when used for the right reason.


  7. Wait a minute. I thought that the justification for forfeiture was that the property seized was likely to be the proceeds of crime. How can soliciting prostitution produce any proceeds at all, let alone contribute to the ownership of a taxi?

    1. Good question. Allow the cops to answer by running a warrant check on you then detaining you for 72 hours, at least a few of those in an interrogation room with the cameras off.

    2. I’m pretty sure that since they didn’t need to prove he was a criminal in the first place, they’re just going to leave it as ‘he was running a brothel out of his cab’. I mean, why not? It’s not like they need to actually prove he was doing that or anything.

      Frankly they could accuse him of any crime in the book and it would be a justification because there is no burden of proof on the state to prove that those crimes ever actually happened.

      1. Burden of proof. That’s rich.

    3. You mis-thought which is probably a result of jerks like Rosenstein who want you to believe what you think. Civil forfeiture is when your property is charged with being involved in a crime, which is true say if you received that money for selling drugs. But it’s also true if you have cash on you when you commit another crime.

    4. Even if it was a legit hookup, I fail to see the crime here. #LandoftheFree

  8. Denver has not had a Republican mayor since 1963.

    Why are liberal Democrat cities so dangerous and oppressive to minorities?

    Chicago, which has not had a Republican mayor since 1931:

    How Chicago Racked up a $662 Million Police Misconduct Bill

    Chicago has paid a staggering sum ? about $662 million ? on police misconduct since 2004, including judgments, settlements and outside legal fees, according to city records. The payouts, for everything from petty harassment to police torture, have brought more financial misery to a city already drowning in billions of dollars of pension debt.

    The Justice Department’s recent decision to investigate the Chicago police ? fallout from the McDonald case ? has helped focus new attention on this agonizing history of misconduct and the surprising lack of consequences. Few officers accused of wrongdoing have been disciplined in recent years.

    1. Bah, Reason mangled the link again:…..l-37775825

    2. Why are liberal Democrat cities so dangerous and oppressive to minorities?

      Just think feel how dangerous and oppressive those cities would be with a Republican mayor!

      1. Children run down with trucks and blacks in chains!

    3. Why are liberal Democrat cities so dangerous and oppressive to minorities?

      Hint, the liberal part has nothing to do with it (not does it have much to do with the people governing the cities). The health of the political machine is all that matters.

      Are there any major cities that have had a lot of republican mayors in the last half century (and fucking Bloomberg doesn’t count)? It would be interesting to do a comparison, but I’m not sure if it’s possible.

      1. Hint, the liberal part has nothing to do with it

        I’ll admit that I lean classically liberal every so often, but it’s hard to deny that the idea’s contained in classical liberalism have directly led to a more oppressive state. The problem with liberalism is that it gives an inch, and the state takes a mile every time.

        That doesn’t make classical liberalism necessarily wrong, but it is a flaw we would be wise to be mindful of.

  9. He could get the car back in 30 days if he gave them $1,000.

    How fast could O.J. get it back?

  10. Well, a city cannot print money like the federal government, so they have to pay for all the democrat programs somehow.

    “Civil forfeiture is a controversial procedure ”
    Corrected: “civil forfeiture is an unconstitutional procedure”

    1. I think that’s an addendum or something. You can’t correct statements that are true.

    2. Which is just evidence that all governments are dangerous in that they often turn the purpose of government on its head: instead of protecting your from criminals, they become one. Because they can. And I hope karma gets to those involved in it.

      1. The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!” – F. Bastiat, The Law (1850)

  11. While a narcotics investigator in Montana I met with a local drug task force about officer safety. During the meeting I was told how they seized vehicles with bank loans still outstanding. If a vehicle seized in a drug arrest has a large loan against it the police agency gives the vehicle back to the bank or lender.

    I was told if you send the lender a letter informing them that the vehicle was seized during a narcotics investigation and may contain “drug residue”. That the lender would have to sign a document that releases the law enforcement agency from any future liability for harm caused to anyone who may purchase the vehicle.

    They said no lender wants to assume the liability for a vehicle that may have “drug residue” that could harm a future buyer. Even though the majority of vehicles seized were seized for marijuana, the lender is never told why type of “drug residue” could be found in the vehicle.

    Jay Fleming
    Law Enforcement Action Partnership

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