Utah has a controversial history with civil asset forfeiture—a tool allowing the government to confiscate property from people not charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. Last Friday, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) issued a first-of-its-kind report providing detailed information on how this power is being used in Utah.
The report is the result of Senate Bill 52 from the 2015 General Session. Libertas Institute proposed the reforms that led to this legislation—which passed unanimously—to help the public better understand in what cases property is being seized. Civil asset forfeiture is a highly controversial practice that has received significant nationwide attention.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, issued the following statement in response to the publication of the report:
“Utahns deserve to know how and when their government is taking property from people—especially when they are not charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. The Utah legislature should be praised for unanimously passing the legislation that produced this report.
“This first-of-a-kind report reveals what has been suspected, namely, that the use of forfeiture by prosecutors in Utah is almost entirely for drug offenses—97.5%. Combined with last year’s law enforcement transparency report showing that 83% of forcible entry warrants are served for drug offenses, an alarming picture begins to unfold: property rights and individual liberty are being undermined in the name of a failed ‘war’ on drugs.
“The forfeiture report also indicates that most property taken is cash, and that the median value of forfeited cash is $1,324. A person whose property is taken—without any criminal charges involved—is unlikely to spend thousands of dollars to hire an attorney and reclaim that small amount. This creates an incentive for police and prosecutors to take small amounts of property without a fight.”
A poll of Utah voters conducted earlier this year by Public Policy Polling found that 86% of Utah voters oppose current civil asset forfeiture laws.
House Bill 22, sponsored by Representative Brian Greene in the 2016 general session, proposed to require a criminal charge as a basis of forfeiting a person’s property. The bill passed the House of Representatives 56-17 but was tabled in committee after organized opposition by law enforcement.