CORRECTION: We originally reported that HB19 leaves open a loophole that would allow law enforcement to work with the feds to skirt the more stringent state law. In fact, a statute passed in 2014 closes the loophole.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Dec. 16, 2016) – A bill filed in the Utah House for the 2017 legislative session would reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws, making it more difficult for police to seize property.
Rep. Brian Green prefiled House Bill 19 (HB19) on Dec. 9. The legislation would require criminal prosecution and conviction of the property owner before finalizing asset forfeiture. As it stands now, Utah law enforcement officers can seize assets they suspect were involved in criminal activity without even making an arrest.
The legislation would also tighten the criteria for legal forfeiture, stipulating that only assets used to directly facilitate the commission of a federal or state offense and any direct proceeds of criminal activity may be forfeited under the chapter.
In 2014, the Utah legislature passed a bill closing a loophole that allowed state and local law enforcement officers to transfer cases to the federal government and avoid more stringent state laws.
Seizing agencies or prosecuting attorneys authorized to bring forfeiture proceedings under this chapter may not directly or indirectly transfer property held for forfeiture and not already named in a criminal indictment to any federal agency or any governmental entity not created under and subject to state law unless the court enters an order, upon petition of the prosecuting attorney, authorizing the property to be transferred.
In states without specific provision closing this loophole, state and local police often use federal law enforcement agencies to circumvent state law. For example, California previously had some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but law enforcement would often bypass the state restrictions by partnering with a federal asset forfeiture program known as “equitable sharing.” Under these arrangements, state officials would simply hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds—even when state law banned or limited the practice. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked dead last of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013 as the worst offender. During the 2016 legislative session, the state closed the loophole.
As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government has inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.
We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.
HB19 will be assigned to a committee once the regular session begins in January.
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