Utah Legislature Unanimously and Unknowingly Gutted a 2000 Citizen Initiative
A 2000 citizen initiative that passed by 69% of the vote in Utah introduced substantial restrictions on asset forfeiture—the process whereby the government seizes a citizen’s property—but several key provisions were overturned unanimously by the legislature in 2013 after lawmakers were told that the bill was a simple “re-codification.”
The initiative was created in large measure to prevent law enforcement agencies from directly profiting from the property they seized, as this financial opportunity created an incentive to seize property. The legislature amended the law in 2004 introducing some minor changes, including allowing proceeds from seized property to be funneled back to the agencies through the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice instead of being deposited in the Uniform School Fund.
In the 2013 legislative session, HB384 gutted many of the important protections introduced through the 2000 initiative, and left in place by the 2004 amendments. Sponsored by Representative Dee and Senator Bramble, the bill was pitched to colleagues as a simple “re-codification” of existing law—a “clean up bill” with little to no substantive changes being made. In the rush of the last days of the session, with likely few (if any) legislators reading over 50 pages comprised heavily of new text, and with the assurance of the bill being a re-codification, both chambers unanimously approved the bill.
As noted in our analysis, HB384 actually altered forfeiture law in an alarming way—a fact that many legislators may be concerned about when they realize what they were led to vote for, and that many citizens may be enraged about when they realize that the will of the people, as expressed in the 2000 initiative, has effectively been overturned.