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Protect Utahns’ Private Property

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2016 Fall Newsletter >>Asset Forfeiture logo

You can take action to reform civil asset forfeiture laws in Utah

Utah’s current civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.

The practice of civil assest forfeiture was originally conceived as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But data from law enforcement agencies reveal that in Utah, the vast majority of individuals who have their property seized by police are never even charged — much less convicted — of a crime. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs often exceeding the value of the property. 

The practice of asset forfeiture disproportionately affects low-income people, people of color, and immigrant and refugee communities - all populations more likely to keep and use cash in lieu of mainstream banking. When government prosecutors are allowed to keep seized property without even charging the property owners with a crime, it can lead to fraying of the relationship between communities and police. 

Since the 2015 legislative session we have been working with other civil liberties proponents to reform Utah’s loose asset forfeiture laws. For the first time, this year (thanks to past ACLU of Utah legislative work), Utah law enforcement agencies were required to report – incident by incident – whenever they seized a community member’s property under current asset forfeiture laws. The information, compiled by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, unfortunately  confirms our suspicions about how asset forfeiture is actually being used in Utah - in contrast to the government’s stated goals.

The Utah report shows that property seized by police in our state is typically:

  • cash (86.4% of all seizures),
  • small amounts (average amount of cash seized is $1,324),
  • related to an alleged drug offense (97.5% of forfeitures), and
  • from an enforcement stop (only about one-third are the result of arrests, searches or other non-enforcement stop actions).

If we want to improve community trust in our police officers, we must reform how civil asset forfeiture is practiced in Utah. 

The ACLU is not the only entity that finds this cycle of seizing and spending by affiliated government agencies troublesome. We are joined by…oh, most of the general public. 

In 2000, Utah voters overwhelmingly passed a state ballot initiative called the Utah Property Protection Act (UPPA). This was even before asset forfeiture became a hot topic nationally, as law enforcement accountability and transparency have come to the fore! 

Utah voters were clearly concerned with any government practice that could deprive community members of their property without appropriate due process, and voters didn’t want law enforcement agencies using the assets they had seized for their own programs, or to close agency budget gaps.  The perverse incentives were pretty clear to the average person on the street.

These concerns are why the UPPA prohibited the use of any funds from forfeiture by law enforcement. In fact, the UPPA mandated that all liquidated assets from forfeitures be given directly to the Utah Uniform School Fund. But ever since the UPPA passed, law enforcement lobbyists have been chipping away at those important reforms. 

To protect the reputation of our police officers and restore community trust in law enforcement, we believe it is time to restore and build upon the reforms in the UPPA. Police and prosecutors should not be able to seize and keep property from community members who are not convicted of a crime. Additionally, there must be uniform reporting for asset forfeitures (including the racial and demographic information of targeted property owners).

During the 2017 legislative session, the ACLU of Utah and its partners will make civil asset forfeiture reform a top policy priority - and we will need your help to realize this reform!

TAKE ACTION! Send an email to your state legislator today from our action page at www.acluutah.orgAsk for substantive civil asset forfeiture reform in 2017!