Northern Utah police depend on asset seizures to help fund drug investigations

Monday , July 31, 2017 - 5:15 AM8 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Local narcotics strike force commanders are unapologetic about continued reliance on the seizure of cash and other assets from suspects in drug busts.

“It is a very valuable tool,” said Layton Police Lt. Shawn Horton, commander of the Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force. “I’m confused why a citizen would want us to not take the money that criminals are making from the illegal sale of narcotics.”

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

Over the past few years, the Utah Legislature has increased reporting requirements to promote greater transparency in civil asset forfeiture cases. A proponent of this scrutiny, the Lehi-based Libertas Institute, says it plans to push for more controls during the 2018 legislative session.

Police say asset seizures are a significant funding source that help make it possible for strike forces to break up large-scale drug rings. The units depend on asset funds, federal grants targeting high drug-trafficking areas, and local police budgets.

Statewide in 2016, police seized $1.4 million of assets in cases governed by state courts. Another $1.2 million was collected by local police in cases involving cooperating federal agencies, according to a state report. About 400 seizure cases were documented.

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“We’re following the guidelines and procedures necessary,” said Ogden Police Lt. Jake Sube, new commander of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force. “It’s big for us to be giving accurate information, because what is given back to us is based on that information.”

Assets seized by police are turned over to the state, which each year grants funds from that pool back to qualifying police agencies.

But critics bemoan that, according to a recent state report, 7 percent of seizures in 2016 came in cases where no criminal charges were filed, and 10 percent of filed criminal cases involving asset seizures were dismissed.

“We agree with the position that drug dealers should not profit from crime,” said Connor Boyack, Libertas president. “The issue is that until prosecutors are able to bring charges and obtain a conviction, the people are alleged criminals. Too often, law enforcement presumes they are guilty. … We are protecting the innocent from being swept up in those efforts.”

Officers trained to avoid unjust seizures

Horton said seizures are documented “and the accounting is very tight.”

“In the majority of our cases, we get people who are admitting they are getting money from the sale of drugs,” he said. “There are very few who ever challenge the seizures. And it is a civil forfeiture process — they have every right to go to court.”

He said the dearth of contested forfeitures indicates “that money’s from the sale of drugs.”

“We’re not doing this in a vacuum,” Horton said. “We conduct a thorough investigation before we serve the search warrant. We have to feel confident that we have a very good reason to seize that (cash or other assets). If we don’t, we don’t take it. We are not in the business of taking all the funds there.”

He said a sergeant who has been on the strike force for several years said he could not remember an asset seizure case that did not tie in directly to a charged criminal case.

“There is always a nexus to an actual crime,” he said. “We don’t just take money because a person doesn’t have an explanation for it.”

But opponents have lobbied for a reversal of part of the process, arguing that people should not have to go to court to retrieve their assets when charges are not filed or are dismissed.

Boyack said he’s encouraged that lawmakers “have a healthy appetite to make sure there is due process and people’s rights are adequately protected under Utah law.”

Prosecutors, though, especially the Utah Attorney General’s Office, continue to “lobby legislators in favor of preserving the status quo,” Boyack said.

“We’re not squandering the money,” Horton said. “It’s all on the books. We hope that is what the citizens want us to do. Why should drug dealers keep the money they’re using to sell drugs to the kids in the neighborhood?”

Public support for asset forfeiture is not broad, however, Boyack contended, pointing to a poll his group conducted in 2016. The survey found 86 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “police should not be able to seize and permanently take away property from people who have not been charged with a crime.”

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Meantime, Libertas is criticizing a recently announced plan by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration to restore federal “adoptive” forfeiture allowances, which make it easier for local police agencies to seize assets under federal law, outside the purview of stricter state laws.

“The policy that Sessions has resurrected directly undermines the will of the public and completely circumvents Utah’s courts and the due process supports they provide,” Boyack said.

During the Obama administration, then-Attorney General Eric Holder limited adoptive forfeiture after criticism that the practice was abused, especially with seizures of small sums of cash, according to an Associated Press story.

Sessions, in a July 19 announcement, relaxed the restrictions.

“Civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels,” Sessions’s statement said.

Police agencies received $1.2 million in state cash seizure grants in 2016, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice said in a report this month. Another $915,000 went out from federal forfeiture takings.

The grants help pay for a variety of police gear, supplies and other expenses. They include police body cameras, strike force building leases, phones and utilities, plus expenses such as fuel, agent training and confidential informant funds.


2016 grants to Northern Utah police from the state civil asset forfeiture fund:

Bountiful Police: $1,500, Camera/surveillance equipment

Box Elder Drug Task Force: $3,100, Narcotics officer training

Clearfield Police: $1,474, Opioid overdose rescue kits

Davis Sheriff's Office: $3,406, Vehicle trackers and radios

Kaysville Police: $1,500, 40-millimeter tear gas launchers (2)

Layton Police: $5,852, Ballistic shields, breaching ram, ear protectors

Syracuse Police: $1,500, RadKIDS prevention/diversion program

Weber-Morgan Narcotics Task Force: $215,500, Fuel, building lease, phones, trains, confidential informant funds

2016 grants to local police from cash and asset seizures in cooperative busts involving federal agencies:

Davis Metro Narcotics Strike Force: $60,790

Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force: $16,685

Source: Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice


You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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