Last year, police in Utah seized over $2.5 million in cash and property using civil asset forfeiture. This is a sharp increase on the $1.4 million seized in 2016, fueling concerns that property may be taken from innocent people.
Civil asset forfeiture is a system which allows law enforcement to seize property suspected of being connected to a crime. Before the property can be seized permanently, law enforcement in Utah is required to show clear, convincing evidence that it was linked to a crime. However, this requirement falls below the standard followed in criminal cases: that it must be proved “beyond reasonable doubt.” No criminal charges are needed for police to take property.
Police departments deposit cash obtained through civil asset forfeiture into a state grant, which is then given back to law enforcement agencies in the form of grants. 100 percent of money gained through civil forfeitures is used by law enforcement in Utah to fund itself. Opponents of civil asset forfeiture claim that, because of this, police are incentivized to seize cash and property, leading to accusations of “policing for profit.”
The annual report released by Utah’s Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice outlines the grants awarded to law enforcement. For example, the Davis Metro Drug and Major Crimes task force obtained over $122,00 to be used on overtime, surveillance, and to fund confidential informants. The largest grant awarded, in excess of $227,000, was given to the Weber-Morgan Narcotic Strike Force. Grants awarded to other agencies included money for body cameras and weapons.
Law enforcement reported 334 cases of civil asset forfeiture in 2017. Over 60 percent of these cases ended in a default ruling. That is, these owners did not even attempt to get their property back in court. Since asset forfeiture is a civil and not a criminal procedure, property owners do not qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. Critics say this system unfairly penalizes low-income property owners who may well be innocent but cannot afford to go to court in order to get their property back.
“In the past few years, the public has become increasingly aware of these laws that allow their government to permanently take ownership of a person’s property without even charging that person with a crime,” said Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute. “I think it really rubs people the wrong way to find out the government can take things from innocent people.”
The libertarian Libertas Institute would like to see the system reformed so that a criminal conviction is required before property can be taken permanently. In 2017, only 58 percent of cases where property was taken by civil asset forfeiture ended in convictions.
Brent Jex, president of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, agrees that cases of property seizure should be tied to criminal charges. Jex does not believe property is currently being taken away from innocent people, but he wants there to be a safeguard to help build public confidence in the system. “You have to be concerned about that to make sure you’re doing it right,” he said.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.