In 2000, Utah voters took a major step toward protecting innocent property owners from abuses under the state’s civil forfeiture laws by passing Initiative B. Thirteen years later, the Utah legislature ignored the will of their constituents and—without debate—passed a new law that rolls back many of the original reforms.
The new law makes it a lot easier for law enforcement in Utah to seize the property of innocent people—and much more difficult for them to fight back. The Utah legislature sold the bill to legislators and voters as a mere “re-codification” of existing law, but as highlighted by a Libertas Institute report, the bill’s 1,400 lines of text significantly altered the civil forfeiture landscape in Utah—and not for the better.
For innocent property owners, the courts are often the only recourse. Yet forfeiture cases can stretch on for months or even years, and seeking to recover one’s property can result in costing much more than the value of the property that was seized. No one should be forced to choose between acquiescing to theft or facing the specter of bankruptcy, so the 2000 initiative guaranteed victorious claimants would be awarded costs, including reasonable attorneys’ fees. This critical protection has been all but gutted: Awards are capped at 20 percent of the value of the seized property, and they are no longer mandatory.
The Utah attorney general offered up a ridiculous defense of this provision, stating that it would serve as a disincentive to attorneys who promote drug legalization from soliciting clients who might be engaging in criminal activities. In addition to an unjustifiable targeting of certain attorneys based solely on their political opinions, this argument ignores, and is also a distraction from, the practical effect (and likely intended purpose) of the cap: to dissuade Utahns from challenging forfeitures in court.
And that’s not all. Under the new law, prosecutors will no longer have to meet a 60-day mandatory deadline (after which property was automatically returned) to file forfeiture motions; they will now be subject to a 90-day optional deadline in which they “may” file a motion. With seemingly no consequence for failing to do so, law enforcement agencies could conceivably keep the seized property locked up indefinitely.
And if at any point someone signs a legal disclaimer giving up rights to his property, the new law bans him from going to court later to challenge the forfeiture. This is especially disturbing because law enforcement officers sometimes threaten to file highly questionable criminal charges unless the person “voluntarily” relinquishes any right to his property. One town in Texas took it to the sickening extreme of threatening to separate children from their parents to elicit such a disclaimer.
Utah’s new law does recognize, thankfully, that forfeitures must be “proportional” to the crime (though it does not define this) and commands the return of property if its retention, pending court proceedings, would create an undue hardship for the property owner. Oddly, though, the law exempts the most commonly seized item: money. Not to worry—nobody has ever suffered from homelessness or had difficulty procuring medical care for want of money, right?
Utah voters took a tremendous step forward in 2000, but its legislature just dragged it two steps back. In countering the will of Utah’s citizenry, the legislature has left property owners exposed and vulnerable to civil asset forfeiture abuses.