Innocent people are being caught in Utah's civil forfeiture dragnet

Friday , July 14, 2017 - 4:30 AM2 comments

STANDARD-EXAMINER EDITORIAL BOARD

Utah law allows law enforcement agencies to seize your assets even if you aren’t accused or convicted of a crime.

So they do.

In 2016, Utah police confiscated $1.4 million in cash and property, according to a state report. Federal law enforcement agencies took another $1.3 million in assets.

  • RELATED: “Report: Utah police seized $1.4M under civil forfeiture law”

The law should protect innocent people, not punish them.

Utah police and prosecutors insist they can’t fight big drug operations and bring down syndicate kingpins without civil asset forfeitures, a tactic they employed 400 times in 2016.

Nine times out of 10, prosecutors filed those forfeiture cases in civil court, where a person’s innocence or guilt doesn’t matter. More than 70 percent of those cases resulted in default judgments, meaning the defendants chose not to answer the complaints.

They almost always forfeit cash. The median amount? A pitiful $1,031, according to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

No wonder defendants don’t go to court. If police seized $1,000 and hiring an attorney would cost twice that, would you invest the time and expense necessary to get your money back?

No.

Utah police aren’t going after kingpins. At least not primarily — more than two-thirds of last year’s asset seizures resulted from traffic stops, the criminal justice commission reports.

And make no mistake. Innocent people are being caught in the dragnet.

Utah police seized civil assets 400 times in 2016. Statistics show 93 percent of the time, those forfeitures involved criminal charges.

That’s 372 cases, of which 63 percent resulted in convictions.

Bottom line, police took the cash and property of 400 people, but only 234 were found guilty of crimes. Despite their innocence, police returned their property 6 percent of the time — and then they received just 46 percent of their seized assets.

America’s justice system is built upon the principle that you’re innocent until proven guilty. In Utah, the system says guilt and innocence don’t matter — the state will take what it wants, when it wants it.

That must change.

Keep the forfeiture law if you’re willing to use it as intended, against significant drug dealers. But, as the Libertas Institute proposes, amend it so people get their money and property back unless they’re convicted of a crime.

We can strike at legitimate criminals without inflicting harm on innocent Utahns.

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