Vendetta

Who's a bigger nuisance -- Douglas Bruce or Denver's property police?

Nelson says the "new evidence" claims aren't new or significant enough to merit a new trial. As for the offer to buy the building, "Mr. Bruce made an offhand remark that all he wanted to do was sell his properties in Denver and never come back," Nelson says. "So I offered him a dollar. This was clearly an offhand comment; it's not what Mr. Bruce claims it to be. I never believe I'll convince Mr. Bruce of anything. But my burden of proof is to the court, not the property owner or the criminal defendant."

Offhand or not, Bruce regards the comment as yet another indication of the city's high-handedness. "As a prosecutor, you can't casually offer to buy a building from someone for a dollar," he huffs. "It's outrageous. I sold that building for $95,000."

Nelson says he's not impressed -- but not surprised, either -- by Bruce's relentless campaign to overturn his conviction. "He puts up a chicken-bone defense," he says. "If you're going to prosecute him, he's going to try to make you choke on him."


As the years passed, the war between Bruce and city officials over his properties just got stranger. It was like a boxing match between punch-drunk pluggers, or a bad marriage. By mistake or out of sick humor, one court filing in the endless bickering was even captioned as a divorce action: "In re the marriage of City and County of Denver and Douglas Bruce."

It was only a matter of time, surely, before the opportunity arose for the city to test its most potent weapon on its most annoying absentee landowner -- a law that turns the offending property itself into a defendant.

Five years ago, as part of an aggressive response to drugs, gangs and gun crimes, Denver began to put some teeth into its public-nuisance abatement procedures. The ordinance gives city prosecutors enormous power, allowing for confiscation of property associated with criminal activity for one to three years. The law is "directed at the property involved without regard to ownership, title, or right of possession, and the culpability or innocence of those who hold these rights." In other words, if an illegal weapon, dope or some other indicator of criminal activity is found in a car, the car can be impounded -- even if the owner had nothing to do with the alleged crime. Similarly, an apartment, a house or a business can be closed or seized because of the actions of tenants or patrons. Innocent owners can be socked with hundreds or thousands of dollars in impound fees and quite possibly face the loss of their business.

The measure began as a temporary one but soon became permanent. Gun-rights groups protested, saying the law was an invitation to detain hunters traveling through the city and to seize their vehicles. Civil-liberties advocates also weighed in. But until Judge Phillips's ruling last month, ripping the lack of due process in the law, the ordinance had rarely been challenged in court.

Most public-nuisance cases involve cars, not real estate. In the beginning, the focus was on drugs. But in recent years, according to Kory Nelson, the city attorney's office has been seizing more property related to prostitution cases -- usually the cars of johns arrested in sweeps on East Colfax Avenue. In 1998, the city impounded one car for a prostitution bust. In 1999, that number jumped to 27. In 2000, 57 -- followed by 76 cars in the first six months of 2001.

Almost all of the prostitution cases are generated by sting operations, in which female police officers pose as hookers. "It's really just a question of how often the police can go out and do this," Nelson says. "They can catch 25 to 30 vehicles in a day. The idea is to incapacitate the car. While we have it, we know it's not being used in a crime."

Having spent considerable time on the street observing the stings, Nelson is familiar with most of the excuses the johns offer: entrapment, stopping to ask for directions, and so on. "They come out with these great stories about how it's all a big misunderstanding," he says. "Usually the misunderstanding is that they don't understand that just the offer to pay for a sexual act -- the offer itself -- is a crime. They think if they don't commit the act or hand over the money that no crime took place."

Other people often end up paying for the johns' misunderstandings. According to Nelson, in a majority of the cases, the john isn't the registered owner of the vehicle. As a result of Phillips's ruling, the city has reviewed all of its active public-nuisance cases and thrown out 75 of them.

"In every case where we felt we couldn't prove the owner wasn't an innocent owner, we've dismissed the case, released the vehicle and waived the storage cost," Nelson says. "We are going to be looking at going back to city council with some proposed amendments to the ordinance that hopefully will address Judge Phillips's issues, giving the county courts more discretion on how to deal with innocent owners."

In cases involving real property, Nelson says, the city has a "98.5 percent success rate" in obtaining voluntary compliance from property owners; the owner of the offending property agrees to take care of the problem, often by evicting the troublemakers, and agrees to let the city monitor activity at the address for up to a year. In return, the city agrees not to seize the guilty plot of earth. "It's very rare that we have to go in and file an action against the property," Nelson says.

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