Public Eye 

click to enlarge CARA DEGETTE

Bill Owens says he's tough on crime. He's an ardent advocate of the war against drugs. This year, when Colorado voters approved marijuana use for medicinal purposes, he urged the feds to fully prosecute anyone who sells, distributes or grows dope.

Why, then, is it OK for the governor of Colorado to have what appears to be a perfectly healthy, knee-high pot plant growing amid blue bell flowers and other foliage on the gated grounds of his official residence in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood?

These photos of the east side of the Governor's Mansion and the alleged marijuana plant just steps from the sidewalk were taken last Sunday, Aug 12. It was unclear whether additional pot plants are growing elsewhere at the historic mansion that was deeded to the State of Colorado for use by the governor in 1959.

Since his election in 1998, Owens and his family have continued to live in their home in Aurora. However as governor, he uses the mansion for official functions, including political fundraisers.

In 2000, the Republican Owens underscored a tough-on-crime stance in his state of the state message: "Just passing laws is not enough," he said. "We must also enforce the laws we already have on the books and vigorously prosecute those who break the law."

click to enlarge CARA DEGETTE

So is Owens ready to turn himself in, to be charged and prosecuted under federal, state or local forfeiture and public nuisance laws? These laws give the government the ability to seize property, often based solely upon probable cause that unlawful activities are occurring there -- including cultivation of marijuana, which is classified as an illicit drug.

And, claims of innocence -- "But I had no idea the pot plant was even there, officer!" -- is no excuse.

"Even if you're just the landlord, you are still responsible for things that happen on your property," said Lt. Donna Starr-Gimeno, commander of the Public Nuisance Abatement Unit for the Denver Police Department. In the first six months of this year alone, Denver police have initiated 552 cases involving real estate and motor vehicles under the city's public nuisance ordinance. That number is up from 305 cases during the first half of 2000.

Starr-Gimeno says the ordinance, which targets crimes ranging from drug sales and possession to prostitution and child pornography, is necessary to make Denver's neighborhoods safer. But such laws have been widely criticized for giving law enforcement agencies huge room for abuse -- especially selective enforcement and prosecution. Published horror stories abound detailing mostly people of color who have been targeted by zealous cops.

Even Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, who in May joined forces with Owens to denounce Colorado's medical marijuana law, acknowledges at least a perception that people of color are generally more often targeted for arrest than the white population, said his spokesman Ken Lane. When it comes to drug and other busts, everyone should be treated equally, Lane said.

This week Starr-Gimeno confirmed that in some cases the city can seize property belonging to their own other government agencies. "Funny you should ask," she said, "we're investigating a case right now involving [government-owned] property."

-- degette@csindy.com


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