Aurora ponders snagging credit-card criminals that now fall through the cracks

Instead, cops are tasked with attempting to get digital fraud cases entered into district court, which often demands more significant dollar figures, the involvement of repeat offenders and other factors

AURORA | Perpetrators of low-level credit and debit card fraud could soon be prosecuted in Aurora Municipal Court, members of an Aurora City Council policy committee decided last week.

Members of the city’s Public Safety Policy Committee — Francoise Bergan, Bob LeGare and Bob Roth — agreed to move forward with a proposed ordinance that would allow the city to prosecute credit and debit card fraud in the city’s municipal court. Currently, there is no law that permits police to write credit card fraud cases into the city’s court system — only an outdated measure pertaining to check fraud, according to city documents.

Instead, cops are tasked with attempting to get digital fraud cases entered into district court, which often demands more significant dollar figures, the involvement of repeat offenders and other factors.

“They’ve got bigger fish to fry, basically,” Aurora Police Sgt. Dan Courtenay, who heads the department’s financial crimes unit, said of the district court’s standards.

Courtenay said his unit, which comprises nine detectives, is forced to “inactivate” or stop investigating many lower level fraud cases because his staffers know they have no shot at getting a conviction at the district level. But Courtenay said he believes many of these cases could be successfully litigated in Aurora’s Municipal Court.

“My guys do a lot of work to present a case to the DA’s office and we’re just not getting the results that we’d like to see,” he said. “These people need to be locked up, basically … if it were in the municipal court, I think we would get a little bit better outcome from our work.”

Nancy Rodgers, senior assistant city attorney, said the district court is wont to only accept more serious cases, such as those involving gas station skimmers.

“(Police) just don’t have enough time to investigate it to the level that county wants, and county doesn’t want the $415 case,” she said. “They want … repeat offenders.”

The financial threshold distinguishing a financial misdemeanor from a felony is $2,000, according to city documents. That could also have bearing as to whether the district court would accept a case, city attorneys said.

Financial fraud cases in the city have skyrocketed in recent years, according to Courtenay, who said his department received 2,300 reported cases last year. Of that total, about 690 were cases of credit or debit card fraud, according to city documents. Courtenay did not specify how many cases were “inactivated” last year.

What the penalties for these new crimes could entail remains to be seen, according to the city’s legal staff. Julie Heckman, deputy city attorney, said that, currently, the penalties for fraud cases would mirror the maximum limits across city code: Up to one year in prison or a $2,650 fine.

“What we decide to do as far as plea bargain guidelines and kind of what we want to look at, that’s going to depend on the nature of each case,” she said.

Regarding the potential for an increased case load, Presiding Judge Shawn Day said the city is poised to efficiently work through any new filings that are entered into its court system.

“We’re well-positioned to accept whatever filings you want to give us,” he said.

Aurora City Council recently signed off on opening a long-dormant courtroom in the city to alleviate the burden of back-logged dockets.

Zelda DeBoyes, the city’s top court administrator, expressed trepidation about the proposed fraud ordinance, saying that any new municipal fees could attract unwanted attention from advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

“As the municipal court finds itself under attack daily by ACLU, and as they … continue to clip our wings because, according to many of their leaders, the municipal court are, you know, going after poor people, going after homeless people,” she said. “They are at the legislator’s doorstep every year trying to limit the things that we can do.”

Representatives from the local branch of the ACLU upbraided DeBoyes’ comments.

“The Colorado Legislature has passed multiple bipartisan bills in recent years to stop municipal courts from jailing people who cannot afford to pay, to ensure the right to counsel in municipal courts, and to prevent people who are poor from languishing in jail before they can see a judge,” John Krieger, spokesman for ACLU Colorado, wrote in an email. “The ACLU of Colorado supported those bills because they are good policy and because they ensure the protection of constitutional rights.  If aligning municipal courts with the Constitution is ‘clipping their wings,’ then they shouldn’t have been flying in the first place.”

Heckman said local police are continuously looking at ways to leverage the city’s local court.

“They’re (police) looking at, how can we address more of these issues … we have our own court right here, can we do it?” she said.

Earlier this spring, the Public Safety Committee moved forward with a measure that would have brought hit-and-run cases to the municipal court. However, after the measure passed out of committee, city attorneys discovered state law prevents cities from enacting such local measures. The proposed ordinance has since been axed from any future study session agenda for council consideration.