Editor’s Note: In the following formal statement dated March 4, 2019, Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze withdrew his support for the Red Flag Bill, which he had earlier indicated held merit. His comment is delivered here in its entirety:
Over the last several days the Colorado Legislature has been debating the passage of HB 19-1177, the Red Flag Bill. In this legislation, family members and law enforcement can petition a court for a protection order and a search warrant for weapons if the petitioners show proof that an individual represents an extreme risk to himself or another. A judge can rule for the petitioners based on a preponderance of the evidence presented. The judge can then issue a protection order and a search warrant for law enforcement to carry out and search for weapons the individual either possesses or has access to. Throughout this process, hearings are held with the court to determine the extent of time any weapons can be seized and held. The total time a seizure can last is 364 days, however, the burden rests on the at-risk individual to prove to the court they can once again possess/purchase weapons. This is a brief synopsis of all of the language contained in the bill. I strongly encourage everyone to read and educate themselves on this legislation.
Over the last several days while this bill worked its way through our state legislature, I was contacted multiple times in regards to my feelings of the bill as it pertained to Chaffee County. You will recall in 2018 a similar bill was introduced and I stated I would support this measure, however, the bill was not passed. I was now pressed on my feelings of the passage of the 2019 Red Flag Bill and my initial response was positive in that I wanted to support the legislation as law enforcement has been asking ardently for increased funding to address our increasingly growing problem of mental health issues in our state. Your county sheriffs have been more outspoken in this regard because statutorily we all have the responsibility to maintain a jail within our prospective counties and we must house and deal with this problem on an ongoing basis.
I also wanted to support this legislation because the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office handled a situation where an individual was suffering from a physiological crisis which made him suffer psychosis and hallucinate as a result. We had no way of handling this situation as no laws had been broken and as a result, a neighborhood was eventually threatened and we nearly became involved in a deadly force encounter. Based on my strong desire to have another tool at my disposal I was compelled to initially offer support for the new bill.
Although I had not written my official stance I was quoted, some correct, many incorrect, as to my stance for my support. It was much to my dismay that the 2019 version of the Red Flag Bill was a much broader initiative. Over the past several days I have sought the opinion of many persons in regards to this issue. I have spent countless hours considering the ramifications of the implications of such legislation and I have spent countless hours drawing from 38 years of law enforcement experience, both in our county but also with the Denver Police Department. I came to one conclusion right away. This is may be the most important issue I have ever had to deal with and it is certainly the hardest decision I have ever made. In reaching my decision I not only consider my views as a private citizen but also as your elected sheriff. I have often said my biggest responsibility is ensuring the safety of our citizens and my biggest fear is that I have not done everything I could have done if something tragic happened and I could have prevented it. The one thing I can assure everyone is that my decision is not based on political pressure. My decision is based on my strongest beliefs as a lifelong law enforcement professional and as your sheriff.
As I looked at the bill the first thing that was obvious was the fact that if we encounter a person in crisis there are provisions to seize weapons, however, there is no funding for any additional mental health resources. We have now done a great disservice because we have once again fallen way short of providing the much-needed help to persons in a mental health crisis.
We may have just stirred the pot more. The second issue I had to consider was the scope of the search. There are no provisions in limiting the scope of the search for weapons. Current language includes searching for weapons where the person in crisis would have access to weapons. Where does this stop? How far reaching is access? This scope for a search is way too broad and could easily be abused, but also exposes law enforcement to liability as the intent is up for interpretation. This whole provision is a civil process, not a criminal process, so if law enforcement executes a search warrant based on Red Flag provisions and becomes involved in any type of critical incident while executing the warrant, what protections do law enforcement personnel have from civil litigation both professionally and privately? Lastly, this bill can be abused by family and close associates of a respondent. What is to stop persons with bad intent from filing false accusations or false information to seek a personal vendetta against another. Remember, the burden of proof is much lower than that of a criminal proceeding where probable cause would be required, a much higher level of proof.
The idea behind this legislation could be a tremendous tool to assist family and law enforcement when handling persons in a mental health crisis, but there also has to be mental health funding attached so there are facilities and resources to treat these persons. The intent of such legislation is commendable in that we must do everything we can do to protect our citizens but supporting legislation that is too broad in scope and could possibly allow for abuse and violation of a person or persons constitutional rights is not acceptable.
Therefore after much consideration, I cannot offer my support in regards to HB 19-1177.
John A. Spezze
Chaffee County Sheriff