SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to tighten police property seizure rules breezed through the Utah Senate recently, but a House committee quickly killed it Friday after relentless criticism by law enforcement.
Sen. Todd Weiler’s Senate Bill 109 would eliminate a loophole he said was a “vestige of pay to play” incentives under current law that could allow police to skirt protections against improper civil asset forfeiture of cash or other property.
But Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Utah Agent-in-Charge Brian Besser and commanders of the narcotics task forces in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties uniformly blasted the bill.
“Pay for play is a myth,” Watt told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “It does not exist.”
Weiler said his bill does only two things:
• Require police to take asset seizure cases to the state courts first and not make an end-around to the federal courts, where asset forfeiture controls are lighter.
• Allow police agencies to apply for grants from the state’s asset forfeiture pool without having to seize assets to qualify.
He complained police were simply opposed to any action to add due-process protections to the seizure law.
“The attitude I have received is that ‘any bill run on asset forfeiture is picking on us,’” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the Libertas Institute pointed out that current law allows assets to be seized without accompanying criminal convictions.
“Because of these due process concerns we really should be moving to a standard where we require a criminal conviction before any assets can be seized,” said the ACLU’s Marina Lowe.
Watt said many seizure cases don’t have convictions because a criminal suspect “will agree to turn evidence against those in the drug traffic organization that exists above them.”
“We do not want to be in the news as those people who are going after people’s rights,” Watt said.
He said county attorneys and federal attorneys ensure no improper forfeitures are done under current law.
“I am offended by the term ‘policing for profit,’” said Orem Police Lt. BJ Robinson, head of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force. “The courts have to approve all the seizures and forfeitures.”
The DEA agent, Besser, raged against the bill, saying it was “an affront to my integrity and the officers I work with.”
He said the bill would only add paperwork clutter to police workloads.
“We are in a landscape that is increasingly pro-criminal and less law enforcement,” he said. “If you want to incentivize criminals, pass this bill.”
Besser said Weiler was guilty of "showmanship.”
On a motion by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the committee voted 8-1 to send SB 109 to the House Rules Committee, effectively killing it, with a recommendation it be considered for study in an interim committee this summer.
“It does not need interim study,” Weiler said, adding he had heard “ad infinitum” from police on the issue.
“I want to stand up and pound my chest (for law enforcement) and say there are no vestiges of pay for play in our system,” Weiler said.