Despite having a better standard of proof than most other states, Utah still earned a “D-” grade for its civil forfeiture laws in a recent report. Studies sourced from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice show that on average, Utah agencies forfeit around $1.7 million per fiscal year.
Between 2009 and 2014, agencies reported a forfeiture of more than $10 million. They also reported forfeiture of more than $18 million in currency between 2006 and 2018. All of this was just under state law; the number rises to at least $38 million for state and federal forfeiture revenue from 2000 to 2019 when you take federal equitable sharing into account, according to the DOJ’s and Treasury’s annual forfeiture reports.
Despite the low grade, Utah’s civil forfeiture laws have some redeeming features. They provide that prosecutors must prove the incontestable connection of seized property to a crime. The laws also provide solid protection for innocent third-party property owners. The government is required to prove that third-party owners had previous knowledge of criminal activity associated with their property.
However, the enticing impetus Utah gives law enforcement to seize property outweighs the provisions: law enforcement can withhold 100% of forfeiture proceeds. Also, although it is mandatory that agencies keep an account of forfeited property, the laws do not include any actual reporting requirements.
Additionally, the Utah Department does not disclose whether forfeitures are processed under civil or criminal forfeiture law. This means that there is almost no way of assessing whether there were more seizures in criminal or civil cases.
How did Utah law enforcement spend $13 million in proceeds from forfeiture funds from 2007 and 2019? 58% of the funds were spent on capital expenditure, operating expenses, and equipment. The rest of the funs went to other areas such as training and miscellaneous expenses.
Although Utah does score an “A” from the IoJ for accessibility of forfeiture records, accounting for forfeiture fund spending, and statewide forfeiture reports, it does not do better than an “F” for financial audits of forfeiture accounts. It does an extremely poor job at the financial inspection of forfeiture accounts. The “D” it received for penalties of failure to file a report and “C+” for tracking seized property also reflect on the severely compromised state of the forfeiture laws.
To its credit, Utah has been pursuing civil asset forfeiture reform for some time. In 2017, reform was passed to allow property owners to file a response after prosecutors fail to file criminal charges within 60 days of filing for forfeiture. The change would lead to an indispensable return of cash under $10,000. The amendment also requires seized property to be returned if the owner is exonerated. There were also other reforms in 2015 that focused on improving the transparency of the system.
To put an end to the continual jeopardy of forfeiture, the report recommends completely ending the forfeiture system. Instead of giving all the forfeited property to law enforcement, the proceeds could instead be deposited in a non-law enforcement fund. Also, the report says the federal equitable sharing program must be shut down. Last but not the least, transparency, accountability, and accessibility would make a great change to Utah’s forfeiture laws, the IoJ report states.
Until meaningful change is passed, victims of civil forfeiture in Utah should immediately consult an attorney. Just because a government agency has seized your lawful property does not mean it gets to keep it. With the right assistance, you can fight for your rights and get your property back.
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