Bill strengthening rights against searches draws unanimous Senate support

DENVER– A rare case of agreement has broken out at the Capitol. Lawmakers on the right and left agree that better rules should be put in place to guard against police searches and seizures. A bill that would require law enforcement (pdf) to inform individuals of their right to refuse searches of themselves and their cars passed the Senate unanimously, thirty-five votes to zero. The ACLU has launched an action campaign championing the bill and asking Gov. Bill Ritter, a former district attorney and strong law enforcement advocate, to sign it straightaway.

“No probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, just a hunch… If a cop doesn’t have a legal reason to search you or your car, he can ask. If you say Yes, you’ve given consent. Trouble is, most people don’t know they have the right to say No, or they’re simply too nervous to decline,” the ACLU explains in a release.

Latino community advocates have strongly backed the bill as a way to prevent harassment and to more widely educate citizens of their rights.

Erik Maulbetsch, spokesperson for ACLU Colorado, said that he recognizes that some members of the community are “overrepresented” in consent searches but that the bill will be good for all Coloradans.

“We acknowledge that [profiling] will still happen to some extent and anything that we can do to prevent that, we are happy to support. The fact is, however, that anyone who gets pulled over, they often don’t know they have the right to say no [to a search].”

The bill, HB 1201, sponsored by state Sen.Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, faced some pushback initially, where lawmakers were concerned good cases would be tossed based on whether or not the officers had probably informed suspects of their right to consent to a search. Ultimately, an amendment made clear that informed consent would be considered by courts as one factor of many determining whether evidence should be allowed for consideration.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for the bill, it was GOP Sen. Kevin Lundberg, Berthoud, who voiced particular objection to the way courts ignore the fact that searched citizens don’t fully understand their rights.

“What struck me the most was the court’s willingness to turn a blind eye to whether a citizen knows what their rights are,” he said. “That is one of the number one frustrations that I get from constituents, when they feel like they got jumped by the system.”

During the same hearing Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora,  explained that the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights has always irked her.

“Before law school I thought a warrant was always necessary to conduct a search,” she said. She was shocked to learn Fourth Amendment rights have been ruled by courts to be extremely limited.

“By the time we get to [consent searches] where there is no warrant, there is no probable cause, there is no reasonable suspicion. It is not a Terry Stop. If there is anything left of the Fourth Amendment at this point, you need to know that you have the right to say Yes or No.”

Maulbetsch said the ACLU is working with a coalition of local groups to draft the letter to the governor.

“It is not to often that you find a bill the passes unanimously through the Senate. [This bill] is a compromise we put together working with law enforcement. We are looking at it as a good first step to protect the constitutional rights of Coloradans.”

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