Colorado’s top law officer assured Durango residents this weekend that he’s fighting for the state’s most disadvantaged, including people with mental illnesses, drug addictions and illegal immigration statuses.
Attorney General Phil Weiser, elected to the position in 2018, joined Durango State Rep. Barbara McLaughlin, 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne and La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith on Saturday at Durango Public Library for a town-hall-style forum to discuss this year’s state legislative session.
About two dozen residents asked the panel to speak about various local, state and national issues, including gun safety, federal law enforcement and homelessness.
‘Red flag’ billThe Colorado General Assembly passed a law this legislative session that will give local law enforcement the authority to ask a judge for an order to take someone’s guns if they pose a significant risk to themselves or others. Many have criticized the bill as unconstitutional, including at least one legal challenge to the state law, which Weiser said argues that HB19-1177 violates due process – a legal principle and civic right that ensures fair treatment through and application of the law.
But Weiser argued Saturday that the process by which a law enforcement officer must go through to seize a weapon is the same as the process and burden of evidence required to take a child from an unfit parent – except it goes farther in requiring the state of Colorado to provide someone an attorney before a gun is seized, which isn’t required to take children.
Some have argued that the rule also violates the Second Amendment’s right to own guns, Weiser said. But that doesn’t make sense, either – constitutional amendments are not absolute and are often limited by subsequent law, he said.
The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech, but it’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded room, for example. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before searching property. But if an officer of the law is convinced an imminently dangerous situation exists, he or she may invade someone’s privacy.
Smith said he has supported the bill and foresees his deputies using the law as a suicide prevention tool.
Immigration and Customs EnforcementFederal agents have been detaining community members on suspicion of violating immigration law for years, Champagne said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have asked Smith to house detainees in the La Plata County Jail, but Smith refused, saying he has no authority to detain someone on suspicion of violation of a civil, federal law.
Weiser said he is intervening with the federal government, demanding it stop trying to “commandeer” local law enforcement resources.
I.C.E. agents have also begun to target individuals at the La Plata County Courthouse. Champagne said the policy undermines the system of justice. Smith said if people are afraid to participate in the justice system, it makes everyone unsafe. What if you’re the victim of a crime, and the only witness, someone without proper documentation, is afraid to testify, Smith said.
But the orders are coming from the top, Champagne said. He knows some of the I.C.E. agents in Durango, he said.
“Local agents are good people,” Champagne said. “They’re just following orders.”
HomelessnessThe most immediate way to help people struggling with homelessness is not to get them housing, McLaughlin said, but rather to address the underlying issues of untreated mental illness and drug abuse that often lead to someone living on the street.
Weiser piggybacked on the idea of drug abuse causing homelessness, saying that many people don’t go to a shelter because they’re addicted to heroin and must decide between withdrawal and a warm bed or a high and nowhere to sleep.
Champagne said Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer suggested that the 6th Judicial District Court expand its problem-solving courts – like drug court – to include a process for people without homes. It’s a long way away, he admitted, but it seems feasible to use the supports of the criminal justice system to help people achieve stable housing.
Smith said the problem isn’t a will to do something – there’s plenty of that. And the solution in many other similar communities addressing homelessness is some kind of structured system Smith said. He said the problem is that nobody wants a shelter near them. He’s reached out to five property owners in Durango who have all said they’re uncomfortable with developing a place for people without homes to gather.
“It’s impacting everyone, but nobody wants to look at it or deal with it,” Smith said. “We’ve been avoiding the problem in this community.”