Denver no longer tracks the millions it’s making off ‘public nuisance’ ordinance

DENVER -- "Not available" was the response the Problem Solvers received when making a public records request to the Denver city attorney's office in September. What seemed curious was FOX31 made the same request a year earlier and received the figures it was seeking: $2.4 million dollars collected in 2016 by the city's controversial public nuisance ordinance.

The measure allows the city of Denver to seize cars, homes and businesses that have allegedly been used in the commission of a crime, like prostitution, a drive-by shooting or an illegal marijuana grow.

But the ordinance has lots of critics because people who want their property back are generally forced to pay large fines to the city based on a crime they may never be convicted of committing.

If criminal charges are dismissed or the defendant is acquitted, they're not entitled to a refund because the terms of the city's stipulation don't allow for an appeal or a refund. If someone wants their property back, they have to agree to the city's terms.

"We would have paid any fine. We just didn't want to lose ownership of our house," said one woman whose house was deemed a public nuisance by city prosecutors after Denver police confiscated four marijuana plants from her backyard.

The city of Denver allows 12 plants per household, but marijuana can only be grown indoors even though the city website at the time stated, "Marijuana must be grown in a fully enclosed and locked space, indoors or outdoors."

The Problem Solvers have agreed to protect the homeowner's identity. However, FOX31 has confirmed the Denver District Attorney dismissed the criminal charges of marijuana distribution the homeowner faced in October 2017.

"It's gotten to a point where I don't even think about the plants anymore. I just think, 'What has happened and why do the police want our house so badly?'" said the woman, who had to pay a $2,000 fine to keep her house.

All of this brings us back to our public records request.

This time, the Problem Solvers wanted to know how much revenue the city attorney tracked in 2017 due to the public nuisance ordinance. FOX31 received an email from the city attorney's office which read, in part, "They stopped compiling the numbers because there was no requirement to do so and it took a significant amount of staff time to generate the data."

But there are data the city still tracks, namely the number of cars and properties it designates as a public nuisance.

In 2017, the city filed cases against 1,840 cars and 66 properties. That's more than the 1,825 cars and 26 properties that generated $2.4 million in 2016.  As a result, it's probably safe to assume the city made more than $2.4 million in 2017.

"I think those statistics would be informative," said city councilman Paul Kashmann. After learning the city attorney tracked the rising revenues for the last 10 years, he told the Problem Solvers, "I would prefer that they continue to gather. We’re a data-driven society and data can really help inform legislation, so I would hope they would reconsider that."

"They certainly should keep doing it. They had been doing it for 10 years up until this point and then once it got some media attention, they stopped," said Sara Neel, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who has closely followed the issue.

Neel told the Problem Solvers she  suspects she knows why the city of Denver has stopped tracking how much revenue it collects from the ordinance.

"It seems to me they probably want to avoid public scrutiny and accountability for their actions. A policy like this that is so controversial deserves to have the light of  day shed upon it," Neel said.

A spokeswoman for Denver City Auditor Tim O'Brien told FOX31 O'Brien is troubled that no one at city hall can provide us the very numbers the city attorney's office tracked for at least a decade.  O'Brien's spokeswoman said he is now considering doing an audit to get to the bottom of the issue.

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