Justice and Due Process

Utah Supreme Court Rules Unanimously on Civil Asset Forfeiture Case


Nearly a year ago, we wrote an amicus brief in a pending case before the Utah Supreme Court dealing with civil asset forfeiture. This case pertains to nearly half a million dollars wrongly taken from a gentleman passing through Utah, then transferred to the federal government.

That transfer violated state law, which through a ballot initiative in 2000 placed barriers around such transfers. Why is this so important? The answer is 80%.

It’s easier to take property under federal forfeiture law where the legal standard is lower. And there’s strong incentive to do so — 80% of the resulting proceeds from the forfeiture are funneled back directly to the seizing law enforcement agency.

That’s different from state law, where forfeitures have stronger legal barriers to overcome by the prosecution. And the money is funneled to a government agency that then disburses it out in grants to various law enforcement agencies.

State law, then, has had barriers in place to deter these transfers to the federal government, providing the property owner with greater property and due process protections. And in this specific case, the property owner’s money was simply handed over to a federal agency without the state law being followed, which limits when such transfers can happen and requires the state judge to sign off on the transfer.

None of that happened, so that became the legal challenge to fight the improper forfeiture and return the money.

Today, the Utah Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in which they agree with the property owner’s arguments — namely, that the property was under the jurisdiction of the state court and should not have been transferred to the federal government.

In reviewing both the law and the intent of the original ballot initiative, the Court noted that “the legislative history here overwhelmingly shows that one of the main goals of the [Forfeiture and Disposition of Property] Act is to provide additional protections to property owners when the state holds their property for forfeiture.”

This result was achieved amid ambiguity in the law requiring the justices to review many different statutes, court opinions, and the aforementioned legislative history and the intent of the Act’s drafters. Thus the opinion also notes that Utah’s law is “not a model of clarity.”

The unanimous opinion is a significant victory for holding state government officers accountable for not complying with the protections that are in state law to prevent forfeiture cases from being handed over to the federal government. It also provides new clarity on how the law can be amended to resolve remaining ambiguities to ensure the intent of the law is more closely followed by those employed by taxpayers to follow it faithfully.

Expect further legislation aiming to do just that in the upcoming session beginning in January.

Read the Court’s opinion here.

  • Larry Morrison

    Truth in Advertising: When are police going to be required to start flying the Jolly Roger Flag on their patrol cars…instead of the “to Protect and to Serve” plastered on the sides of the revenue collection vehicles?

    • Nathan Hale

      The skull and crossbones flag or Jolly Roger is almost all that is missing from these private corps gunships that have zero accountability to the people, the public trust.

  • Way to go!

  • Troy Hudson

    When will the legislature write clear, succinct laws that any “normal” person read and follow?

  • “…a UHP trooper stopped Mr. Savely while Mr. Savely was driving on Interstate 80 through Summit County, Utah. In response to his K-9’s alert, the trooper detained the vehicle’s occupants and searched the vehicle. The trooper uncovered no drugs or other contraband but found a case containing 52 bundles of cash….¶5 The trooper seized the cash….”

    And the cash was seized, why? What crime was suspected? Why did Mr. Savely allow the trooper to search the vehicle? I guess I don’t know the details but just on the surface it looks like law enforcement malfeasance.

    • Nathan Hale

      The “cash” stolen was presumably fed reserve promissory notes. Seems as though those are actually owned by that private enterprise. If the fellow was holding his own real money like gold, then it’s quite a different matter where the third party creditor is eliminated

      • True that. But it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why he allowed them to search his vehicle.

        • Nathan Hale

          Seems as though the dog is the “legal” construct that establishes probable cause to search. The officers have guns and such to “enforce” their fictional law. For the now detained traveler to deny the search is not so easy to do. Perhaps the traveler should require the dog find the supposed weed, then if weed is not found, search is done.

  • Dave Charbonneau

    Side-note, but on topic… I’d like to see alert dogs’ records kept and dogs retired if their failure rates (alerting on a vehicle where no drugs are located) become above a certain level. My guess is that this would reduce the number of searches and help curb corruption.

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