In 2016, Kyle Savely was driving on I-80 in Summit County, Utah when he was pulled over by the Utah Highway Patrol (UHP). Officers said the man had been tailgating the car in front. A drug dog examined the car and alerted officers to the presence of narcotics. They searched the man’s car and, while they found no drugs, they did find the man was traveling with cash in excess of $500,000.
The man was charged with a traffic violation and police seized his money. Although he was later acquitted of the charge, the UHP did not return the cash. Instead of giving the money back to its owner, the UHP handed it over to the Drug Enforcement Administration because, they said, the DEA had an active investigation against him.
The UHP used civil asset forfeiture to seize the man’s money. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal procedure where law enforcement may take cash or property from an individual even if they are not charged with a crime.
Following public outrage at misuse of civil asset forfeiture in Utah, voters passed Provision B in November 2000. This provision stipulated that property may not be taken from innocent owners. Further, Utah law states that the property must be tied with clear and convincing evidence to a crime.
Although Utah lawmakers have weakened the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws since then, the core of Provision B still stands. To circumvent the provision’s restrictions, police agencies in Utah often partner with federal law enforcement agencies using a program called “Equitable Sharing.” In these cases, the feds keep 20 percent of the proceeds while the relevant law enforcement agency retains 80 percent.
As Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute explains, it seems the UHP told the DEA about the cash in order to be able to circumvent Provision B’s restrictions. “It’s likely that one government agency tipped off another, and they tried to get away with it behind the scenes.”
The accused has spent the last two years trying to get his money back. This year, his case finally made its way to the Utah Supreme Court. In April, Justice Constandinos Himonas expressed concern at the UHP’s motives. “The cynic in me says what happened here is, it’s a lot of money, your client wanted to avoid the court and alerted DEA and wanted to circumvent proceedings so they can get their 80%,” he said.
The director of the Utah Attorney General’s Highways and Utilities division, Mark Burns, denied this was the case. “We had a federal court seizure warrant that was in place, and the Highway Patrol wanted to make sure they were not in violation of,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure we were complying with the order of the court.
Last week, the court published a unanimous ruling ordering a lower court to reexamine who actually has jurisdiction over the seized cash. “A federal seizure, even under a seizure warrant, is invalid when it is issued after a state court is already exercising in rem jurisdiction over the property,” wrote the Justice.
It is possible the UHP may have to return the money to the man. As the Justice wrote, “The state district court retains in rem jurisdiction to force UHP to return the property to Mr. Savely.”
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