Authorities in Utah Seized Nearly $3 Million in Cash and Assets From Citizens Last Year

Are cops targeting drug kingpins or running roughshod over property rights?


West Coast Surfer/picture alliance / moodboard/Newscom

Utah police seized more than $1.4 million in cash during 2016 and federal law enforcement agencies operating in Utah took another $1.3 million in assets from people suspected of crimes, a new report shows.

Utah is one of just a few states in the country to require an annual report on asset forfeiture, the practice by which cops seize cash, cars, and other property believed to have been used in a crime or obtained with the proceeds of a crime.

The new report, released this month by the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, shows there were 400 forfeiture cases in Utah during 2016, with cash being seized in 99 percent of those cases.

In one case highlighted by the Salt Lake Tribune, cops seized cars and other property—including "a $25 flashlight…a $4,000 mountain bike, a $2,500 motorcycle and a guitar autographed by Led Zeppelin worth $3,000″— and charged several people after a methamphetamine bust, prosecutors say.

Cops like to publicize such busts because it feeds a narrative that asset forfeiture is used primarily against big-time drug dealers. But they're rather out of the ordinary, the report shows.

Most forfeitures (69 percent) take place during traffic stops and most of the time only money is seized. According to the state report, cash was taken in 99 percent of forfeitures during 2016, with the median seizure amounting to only $1,031.

That means, in many cases, the amount seized was considerably less than four-figures. In one instance, the report shows, police took $16 from a motorist.

"What are they doing where they have to take that $16 to protect public safety," says Jennifer McDonald, a research analyst for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states and advocates for reforms to the practice.

As in other places—like in Chicago, where cops have seized as little as 34 cents from motorists and targeted poor neighborhoods with forfeiture actions—the amount of the average seizure raises questions about how forfeiture is being used.

Small scale seizures give the victim almost no recourse. Under asset forfeiture laws, the burden of proof is on the property owner, and few people are going to hire and lawyer and go to court to recover a small amount of cash, McDonald says. "It's just ridiculous."

Important details about what has been taken—like the motorbike and the Led Zeppelin guitar—are only available from more detailed audits of asset forfeitures. Those audits are required in Arizona and Colorado, which recently passed forfeiture reforms that are the gold standard for states, McDonald says, but that's not required in Utah or many other places, for now.

"We would like to see audits on a regular basis, just to ensure accuracy within those accounts," McDonald says.

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  1. The sub-head is a distinction without a difference.

  2. Small scale seizures give the victim almost no recourse.

    Which would be why they do it. And these statistics don’t even include the cash being pocketed by the individual officers.

    1. Cops have been shaking down poor folks since we invented cops. Asset forfeiture just gives them color of law. While I applaud IFJ, ACLU and state legislators for challenging the existing statutes, cops will continue to steal, rape, and plunder because it’s a job perk.

  3. Obviously pro se would be the only reasonable way to contest petty forfeitures, but some are so petty they’re not even worth your own time, let alone some lawyer’s.

    1. Just thinking…would a class action be feasible?

  4. I’m sure that the 2.9 Million is represents a figure that is grossly under the actual take.

  5. All the state’s efforts are unconstitutional anyway.

    The 4th Amendment protects:
    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    and the 5th Amendment protects:
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    The police know that its a waste of time to give people $500 compensation for $500 in cash that they are trying to seize.

  6. This would freak me out on so many levels.

    Man stuck in ATM puts “Please Help” note into receipt slot

  7. All cops enforce immoral laws therefore they are all bad. They are a boot in the face not a helping hand. They exist to protect and serve the State not the People. They are nothing but a criminal gang.

  8. these forfeiture laws should be one of the highest priority to get reformed. NO ASSET can be taken without FIRST a conviction of a real crime with a real victim. Perhaps in some cases they should be able to SEIZE such assets, but may not take, use, or dispose of them until AFTER the owner is found guilty of some crime in a court of law. And the judge in the criminal case, ONLY if a guilty verdict is issued, must be the one to determine the fate of the property. No conviction, the property MUST be returned in original condition, or the victim (the one falsely accused and found innocent) MUST be compensated for the full market value of what was siezed. Further, the law enforcement agency seizing the asset can never benefit in any way from its seizure or disposition. Remove the filthy profit motive from seizure.

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