Friday , July 07, 2017 - 1:58 PM
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah police seized $1.4 million in cash last year from people under a law allowing law enforcement to take someone’s property even if a person isn’t charged or convicted of a crime, according to a state report.
The annual asset forfeiture report released Thursday by the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice shows nearly all of the cash and other property was seized during investigations of alleged drug crimes.
The report also shows federal law enforcement agencies seized an additional $1.3 million in forfeited assets in Utah last year, some of which was shared with local law enforcement.
Law enforcement agencies say civil asset forfeiture laws are a key tool to fighting large-scale crime operations or drug kingpins, while also helping them fund key programs or buy equipment.
Civil liberties groups, however, have scrutinized asset forfeiture practices around the country in recent years and spotlighted abuses where officers collected homes, cash and more despite thin connections to a crime.
The new report offers a detailed look at the money, cars and other items that asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize if officers suspect it’s tied to a crime.
In one case out of the city of Uintah near Hill Air Force Base, officers seized $21,000 in cars and other property from a house where prosecutors said several men were involved in a large methamphetamine distribution operation.
The other seized property included ordinary items like a $25 flashlight, along with pricier goods like a $4,000 mountain bike, a $2,500 motorcycle and a guitar autographed by Led Zeppelin worth $3,000.
The Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force said it believed the items were purchased with drug money or the given as payment for drugs.
In most cases of the 400 cases, people didn’t fight to get their property back. Only 6 percent of people had any property returned.
The libertarian-leaning Utah nonprofit Libertas Institute, which pushed for Utah’s reporting requirements, says that when the government is able to seize a person’s property before they’re convicted, it violates the principle of the U.S. justice system that people are innocent until proven guilty.
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, said the group would like to see Utah law changed so that if someone is not convicted of a crime, their property would be returned instead of them having to go to court to get it back.
In Utah, police deposit the cash or profits from seized assets into a state account that then doles out grants to law enforcement agencies.
Last year, $1.2 million was paid out from that account for things like the state drug court system, a drug crime task force and equipment for police, including Naloxone rescue kits, patrol car cameras and tear gas launchers.
The report released this week shows 400 instances in 2016 where Utah police seized someone’s assets. In 93 percent of those cases, criminal charges were filed and two-thirds of those cases resulted in a suspect’s conviction. Other cases were still pending or criminal charges were dismissed.
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