Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, told the story of a Utah family driving to Idaho to attend a wedding, carrying $18,000 in cash with them to pay for the event. “[The family] was pulled over on a routine traffic stop,” Greene told the committee, “when the officer saw the money, he seized it as potential drug money.” The family was never charged, said Greene, and had to hire an attorney to try and get the money back. “It took a year later before law enforcement decided there wasn’t enough evidence to prove [it was drug money], and the cash was returned. But there was no compensation for the inconvenience, attorney fees, or the hassle they had to go through.”
When someone’s property is seized by law enforcement, whether it’s cash, a car, personal property, or even real estate, it’s incumbent on the individual to prove that the property was not involved in a crime—even if the individual is never arrested or charged. That can be a very expensive process due to attorney fees and other legal expenses, and even if the individual is successful at getting their property back, they can only be reimbursed a maximum of $1,000 for the legal costs.
“Two-thirds of the civil forfeitures in Utah are for property worth under $5,000, and almost 30 percent is worth under $1,000,” said Greene. “So hiring an attorney to defend against the seizure just isn’t realistic.”
“My bill would create a financial incentive for law enforcement and prosecutors not to abuse" the forfeiture policy, Greene tells City Weekly
. “It would give a private citizen the ability to recover all of their attorney fees and costs. One of the big problems now is that there is no incentive for a prosecutor not to play hardball with people, because there’s no risk of their office having to pay out if they’re wrong. So if [my bill] passes, and law enforcement wrongfully takes your property, it would put you on an even playing field with prosecutors and allow you to hire the legal help you need to get your property back.”
Greene says his bill, House Bill 22, which was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, also fixes another big problem with Utah’s forfeiture laws. “Right now,” says Greene, “law enforcement can come in like a blitzkrieg and seize any property, even if it’s only indirectly related to a crime, and then you are the one who has to prove it was unrelated.”
In other words, if one of your family members were to steal a car and bring the car to your house, police could seize not only the stolen car, but also your laptop in the back seat, and your car that was in the driveway next to the stolen car. Greene’s bill would make it law enforcement’s responsibility to prove the property they seized was directly involved in a crime, instead of yours.
HB 22 received unanimous support from the House Judiciary Committee, and now moves to full House for consideration.
The past year has seen a massive upswell nationwide of news reports exposing the abuse of a police practice called civil asset forfeiture—a policy that allows law enforcement to seize any property they allege may have been involved in criminal activity, and keep or sell it. Now, one lawmaker wants to reform Utah’s law.