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Colorado bill would attempt to reduce jail populations by changing when police make arrests

The bill from State Sen. Pete Lee would tell police that certain crimes are subject to a summons rather than an arrest. Some officers disagree with the idea.

DENVER — Imagine walking out to your car to drive to work, just to find an empty spot where you parked.

Good news, though. Law enforcement have your stolen car pulled over and the suspected thief is inside.

What should happen to that person?

Today, law enforcement in Colorado have the discretion to arrest the person or issue a summons for that person to appear in court.

Under a bill at the state Capitol, the officer would lose one of those options for certain crimes.

"What I'm really trying to do is ween Colorado from its incarceration addition," said State Sen. Pete Lee (D-Colorado Springs).

Lee's SB21-062 deals with managing jail populations.

"We're trying to, while keeping communities safe, reduce the number of people who are put into local jails for low-level offenses, if they do not present a risk to the community," said Lee.

To know which suspected crimes would still require an arrest and which ones would not, requires knowing which crimes fall under which statute.

The types of crimes that would still result in arrest are defined in state statute as Class 1, 2 and 3 felonies.

Those crimes include:

  • Murder
  • Manslaughter
  • Homicide
  • Serious assaults
  • Kidnapping
  • Sexual Assault
  • Robbery

There are many more, but that is a brief summary.

"What if someone walks up to the front of your house and steals your car? Someone steals your car and takes off with it. You're going to be victimized, you're going to be upset. What do you want the police officer to do?" asked Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen.

Christensen is also the president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, which opposes the bill.

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"The officer has discretion to help the victim feel more safe. This bill removes the ability to do that. If I stop that person in your stolen car, I cannot, by this bill, take them to jail," said Christensen.

Other crimes that would earn a summons to appear in court instead of a trip to jail include Class 4, 5 and 6 felonies like property and identity theft, possession of weapons, even inciting a riot or insurrection.

"If your house is broken into, I cannot arrest that person. I have to issue them a summons," said Christensen. "We believe this bill is anti-victim and anti-community."

When it comes to arresting someone or issuing a summons, an officer would need to know which felonies fall under which class.

"It is confusing. It's not going to 'could be,' it will be,'" said Christensen.

During the interview, he held up a thick statute book that each officer can reference to confirm which crime falls under which category.

"Police are trained by their local police administration and they're trained to enforce the law and they have arrest authority, so they darn well better know the circumstances under which they can arrest a person before they take them into custody," said Lee.

There would be exceptions to not allowing an arrest if the officer could prove one of two criteria.

"There are provisions in the bill that allow and empower law enforcement to arrest people if they present a risk to the community or if they are going to flee the jurisdiction," said Lee.

"Right now, a police officer has discretion to make a decision based on the totality of the circumstances as to whether a summons would be appropriate," said Christensen. "The tool of discretion is being removed from my police officer who's out there working every day to keep his or her community safe."

The second half of the bill would prevent judges from requiring a cash bond for certain offenses unless the court believes that the person would flee or threaten the safety of another.

Currently, judges can require a defendant to pay a specific dollar amount in bond to be released from jail while they await their next court date.

If they can't afford the bond, they're held in jail.

Supporters of this bill referenced Michael Marshall, a man who was held in the Denver Jail on $100 bond. He had a psychotic episode while in jail, was placed in the prone position by deputies, had a spit hood placed over his face, then choked on his own vomit, was in and out of consciousness and went to the hospital. He eventually died. His family sued and the city of Denver paid a $4.65 million settlement.

The bill also included provisions on how many times a defendant was allowed to not appear in court before a warrant would be issued for their arrest, instead of a summons.

As of Thursday evening, the bill was still being debated in committee after starting around 2 p.m.

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