Lawmaker: Fight for Idaho crime victims' rights not over

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter pauses in his office April 6, in Boise.

BOISE — Idaho’s governor vetoed four bills on Thursday that passed the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, including one to set stricter standards for when police can seize the property of suspected drug dealers and one to create a new office to coordinate the state’s anti-invasive species efforts.

In his letter accompanying the civil asset forfeiture reform veto, C.L. “Butch” Otter called the bill “a classic case of a solution in search of a problem, with the potential to create problems of its own in the process.” Otter said it was opposed by law enforcement and would bring no benefits to law-abiding citizens while making things easier for criminals.

“It is my view that it is right and proper for drug dealers to have a healthy fear of losing their personal assets if they are caught breaking the law,” Otter wrote. “But while seeking to ease those fears, this legislation goes even further by placing an annual reporting requirement on law enforcement. It is a misplaced effort to hold those responsible for protecting us from crime more accountable while relieving those charged with committing crimes of a worrisome consequence.”

Civil asset forfeiture is when law enforcement seizes property they believe is connected to drug crimes, generally before a person is convicted of a crime. The idea is to ensure offenders can’t keep ill-gotten gains or use their property to commit more crimes. However, there have been stories of the process being abused, which has led to calls for reform. The bill would have established new protections such as saying merely possessing cash won’t be taken as evidence of a crime, a requirement for a court to find if a seizure is proportional to the crime, and a provision to let people keep property such as a vehicle needed to get to and from work when a case is pending. It also contains new public reporting requirements to track seizures.

The bill, which was put together by Reps. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, and Steve Harris, R-Meridian, went through a couple of versions and was amended to address some law enforcement concerns. The last version passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously.

House Democrats released a statement calling the veto “a surprise move that cut against his own party’s support.” Rubel said the prosecutors’ and law enforcement groups that had opposed the bill initially didn’t oppose the final version.

“Contrary to the suggestion otherwise, we received testimony from many people who had their money and property seized despite that property being unconnected to any drug offense,” she said, referencing a statement in Otter’s veto message that there have been no cases of police seizing property “illegally or inappropriately” in Idaho. “This legislation would have solved that very real problem without jeopardizing public safety. We are disappointed the governor did not consult with the Democratic and Republican co-sponsors before issuing the veto. We could have clarified any misperceptions about what the bill does.”

A few other measures meant to stop invasive quagga and zebra mussels from getting into Idaho, including one raising the sticker fee on out-of-state boaters to fund more check stations and resolutions calling for more federal funding and interstate and federal cooperation, have become law. The one Otter vetoed would have created an administrator of invasive species policy within the executive branch and an invasive species council to coordinate the state’s efforts. He also vetoed the accompanying funding bill.

Otter wrote he would rather spend the resources on “boots on the ground” to enhance boat inspection and decontamination efforts, and with his veto also issued an executive order continuing the existence of the Idaho Invasive Species Council as a panel within the state Department of Agriculture rather than as part of the governor’s office.

The last bill would have combined the barbers’ and cosmetologists’ licensing boards into one, reduced the number of hours needed to get a license, allowed the board to reinstate an expired license retroactive to its expiration date and let people who only do hair and makeup at events like weddings and dances do so without a license. It was widely supported in the Legislature, but evolved out of another bill just combining the two boards, and some in the cosmetology industry opposed the deregulatory aspects.

“House Bill 139 is a case of reasonable, consensus-driven ideas from the State Board of Cosmetology and the Board of Barber Examiners getting burned in what is supposed to be the refining fire of our legislative process,” Otter wrote in his veto message.

Otter wrote the changes “turned a consensus plan into a controversial bill in which the original intent was largely lost.” Otter said he supports consolidating the two boards and would consider exempting event stylists, but opposes the other changes.

“For years, Butch Otter has given great speeches about the need for a free economy and limited, constitutionally-based government,” Wayne Hoffman, the head of the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation, said in a statement. “Yet once again, Gov. Otter has rejected sensible, conservative, bipartisan liberty-based legislation that would have put Idaho entrepreneurs back to work and would have protected constitutional rights of Idahoans.”

Hoffman, whose group backed both the cosmetology and asset forfeiture bills, also wrote a column Friday wondering if Otter, who earlier in his career took more libertarian-leaning stances such as voting against the Patriot Act in Congress in 2001 and voicing support for marijuana legalization in the 1970s, either has a liberal twin or has been abducted by aliens.

“I, for one, prefer to think that Butch is still the defender of limited government, constitutional government he always was,” Hoffman wrote. “He’s just in a spaceship somewhere.”

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