GFPD being buried by unclaimed property; city proposing ordinance to allow for disposal

Piles of stuff are threatening to overtake the available space at the Great Falls Police Department.

There are thousands of pieces of unclaimed property at GFPD that no longer has evidentiary value or has other legal requirements for disposal.

“Ultimately what we’re talking about here is junk,” said Joe Cik, assistant city attorney.

The problem has been mounting for years and beginning in 2016, GFPD and city legal staff started examining issues with piles of stuff.

The vast majority being held has little or no value and has never been claimed by a rightful owner, according to the city.

Items include things like half empty bottles of alcohol collected on DUI stops. Guns, drugs and other items that have other legal guidelines for disposal are not included in this proposal.

Property comes into GFPD in many ways. Some is recovered as part of an investigation, or in many instances, because members of the public have no other way of disposing of it, according to the city.

GFPD Chief Dave Bowen said that last year, the department collected 14,000 pieces and disposed of 7,800 pieces.

“It’s become almost to the point that I’ve got to build buildings to house the stuff,” Bowen said during the March 6 City Commission meeting.

This problem is not unique to Great Falls and prior to the 2017 Montana Legislative Session, there was no clear legislative criteria as to how law enforcement agencies could dispose of unclaimed property, according to the city.

To deal with the clutter, the Great Falls city attorney’s office requested that the Montana League of Cities and Towns to consider legislative changes to allow for disposal of the property.

During the 2017 legislative session, the League worked on legislation to establish criteria by which this type of property could be disposed.

Great Falls City Attorney asked Sen. Ed Buttrey to introduce Senate Bill 200, which was passed and singed into law.

Cik, GFPD Captain John Schaffer and City Commissioner Bill Bronson attended legislative sessions and testified as proponents of the bill, which amended Montana Code Annotated Title 7, Chapter 8, Part 1 pertaining to general provisions to local government.

State law now states:

  1. The legislative body of a local government may, by ordinance or resolution, provide for the care, restitution, sale, donation, return, or destruction of unclaimed tangible personal property that may come into the possession of a peace officer or a law enforcement entity of the local government for which state law does not otherwise provide a procedure for disposition.
  2. At a minimum, the ordinance or resolution must provide:
    • that unclaimed property valued at $20 or more must be held by the local government for a period of at least 3 months;
    • a process by which the local government shall attempt to notify the legal owner of unclaimed property held in its possession;
    • a process by which the local government may allow a finder of unclaimed personal property to take possession of that property if it remains unclaimed;
    • that unclaimed property will be destroyed as allowed or required by local, state, or federal law, returned to the finder, donated, or otherwise sold at public auction to the highest bidder;
    • that, at least 10 days prior to the time fixed for the destruction, return, donation, or sale at public auction of unclaimed property, notice of the planned disposal must be given by publication one time in a newspaper of general circulation; and
    • that, upon proof of legal ownership, the local government shall restore the unclaimed property to its legal owner.
  3. After property has been destroyed, returned, donated, or sold at public auction, the property or the value of the property is not redeemable by the owner or another person entitled to possession.

City staff is proposing an ordinance to amend city code to allow GFPD to dispose of unclaimed property consistent with the new state law.

The change would “help alleviate the backfill of the massive amount of unclaimed personal property in GFPD custody,” according to the staff report.

Cik and Bowen said GFPD evidence custodians would determine values of the unclaimed property and anything over $20 in value would be listed on an online auction site for sale. Anything under $20 would be placed in secure dumpsters for disposal, Bowen said.

GFPD does work with local agencies to donate some of the unclaimed property that suits a nonprofit or government agency’s needs.

One example is GFPD donates unclaimed bicycles to participants in the local drug and veterans treatment courts to help them get to appointments and jobs.

City Commissioners set a public hearing on the ordinance for March 20 and if approved, Great Falls would be the first city to adopt the new criteria.

“We’re going to be the model on this,” Cik said.