PUEBLO, Colorado — Law enforcement leaders from Southern Colorado made their case to state lawmakers this week asking for changes to last year's misdemeanor reform bill. They believe the legislation raised the risk to public safety by limiting when an officer can arrest someone suspected of possessing firearms as a previous offender.
Pueblo Police Chief Christ Noeller, Fountain Police Chief Chris Heberer, and 4th Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen all gave testimony Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee as members considered a pair of bills that would update Senate Bill 21-271.
The local law enforcement leaders specifically asked the committee for an amendment to House Bill 22-1257 that would include drug distribution and motor vehicle theft convictions in the list of crimes that trigger the Possession of a Weapon by a Previous Offender (POWPO) felony charge.
The multiple revisions to Colorado's Criminal Code enacted by Senate Bill 271 took effect at the beginning of the month. That legislation currently limits POWPO arrests to only those offenders who have been previously convicted of one of the 49 felonies listed as part of the Colorado Victim's Rights Act.
Bill 1257 seeks to add another 60 felony convictions to the POWPO list. However, motor vehicle thefts and drug distribution are not included.
The Pueblo Police Department issued a news release Thursday describing the arrests of two suspects on March 1 that were affected by this change in legislation.
PPD patrol officers and parole officers contacted Amada Pacheco-Sammon, 38, and Preston Reno, 43, on March 1. Pacheco-Sammon was arrested on outstanding warrants and for driving with a revoked license.
Reno was arrested for restraining order violations, violating his bond conditions, and theft. He has three prior felony convictions and was in possession of methamphetamine and a stolen handgun at the time.
"Because it was March 1st, we could not take him to jail or arrest him for possession of a firearm, being a felon because it's no longer a crime for him," explained Sgt. Franklyn Ortega, Public Information Officer for the Pueblo Police Department.
Senate Bill 271 was the culmination of two years' worth of work by the members of the Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission(CCJJ.) The 30 members of that commission include representatives of victims' rights groups, prosecutors, defense attorneys, former offenders, probation workers, parole officers, and law enforcement officers.
Bill 271 enjoyed unanimous support in the State Senate last May. However, it passed the Democrat-led House of Representatives on a 38-24 party-line vote.
On the day of the floor vote in the Senate, co-sponsor State Senator Robert Gardner (R) Colorado Springs introduced a last-minute amendment relating to penalties for diesel inspections.
"I predict that we'll be doing these little clean-up things for another session as well," he said at the time.
His prediction came true with the introduction of both HB-1257 and House Bill 22-1229, appropriately titled The Senate Bill 21-271 Clean Up.
Bill 271 reduced a large number of petty offenses in the criminal code to civil infractions. Bill 1229 adds new procedures for the courts to use when handling those cases.
Bill 1257 specifically updates the list of POWPO offenses using recommendations from the CCJJ.
"I'm pleased to share with you that the law also gets stronger in that any individual who uses or threatens the use of a weapon when having been convicted of an underlying crime will no longer be probation eligible," 12th Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty said during committee testimony. "All those individuals will face a mandatory prison sentence."
Speaking on behalf of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, Pueblo Chief Chris Noeller urged the committee to include the motor vehicle theft and drug distribution charges in the language of Bill 1257.
He said the combination of narcotics trafficking and gun possession is one that is "rife with violence."
Noeller testified that Pueblo experienced a 107 percent increase in homicides, a 13 percent increase in aggravated assault, a 26 percent increase in robbery, and a 49 percent increase in auto thefts in 2021.
"In Pueblo alone last year, 28 percent of our 29 homicides had clear drug involvement," Noeller told the committee. "The violence tied to drug distribution is further demonstrated by these examples from our community."
Chief Noeller called the gun a tool used by car thieves and drug dealers use to carry out their crimes. That comparison was picked up by 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner during his testimony.
"That gun is typically there for a reason, it's a tool to accomplish their objective of stealing that car if there is some sort of pushback from the owner," Kellner said.
State Senator John Cooke, (R) Weld County introduced an amendment to HB-1257 that would have added drug distribution and motor vehicle theft convictions to POWPO list. However, chairman Sen. Pete Lee, (D) Colorado Springs blocked a vote on the amendment on procedural grounds.
Judiciary Committee co-chair Sen. Julie Gonzales (D) Denver asked Sen. Lee for a title ruling saying that she felt the amendment fell outside of the title of 1257 which is named "the adoption of recommendations of the Colorado Criminal Juvenile Justice Commission."
Sen. Lee said he came to the same conclusion when issuing his ruling.
Both bills have already passed final votes in the House and received unanimous approval by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
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