Utah Law Enforcement Doubles Down on Forfeiture Misrepresentations

In an attempt to derail legislation meant to reform civil asset forfeiture, Utah law enforcement agencies sent a highly misleading letter to legislators last week falsely claiming that House Bill 22 would “protect drug cartels, not innocent owners.” We posted a response, including a letter from the bill sponsor, Representative Brian Greene.

The response picked apart their claims one by one, demonstrating their inaccuracy.

Now, they’ve doubled down by sending a second letter—one that contains more misrepresentations, and doesn’t even attempt to respond to the rebuttals of their claims as to what the bill would do (which would be hard, since their claims were completely inaccurate).

The letter starts by addressing an example of forfeiture mentioned in Representative Greene’s letter—that of the Garcia family whose cash (over $14,000) was seized by officers. Noting that “a drug dog alerted” officers of the smell of drugs, the letter admits that “no drugs were found.” As a result, the Garcias were released; no charges were filed. Yet the money was kept, and ultimately returned, without any attorney fees provided.

This highlights one of the egregious aspects of forfeiture, and one about which law enforcement is indifferent—the injustice of fighting for one’s property when a disincentive exists to do so. Imagine you have $4,000 seized by officers, and the prosecutor begins proceedings to forfeit (confiscate) it. Is it reasonable to hire an attorney, whose fees may easily exceed that amount? It is not. It is therefore easy for the government to take and keep others’ property when it is under a certain amount, since it is unlikely that the taking will be contested.

Perhaps that is why, despite all the wild claims of using civil asset forfeiture to go after drug cartels, the data simply does not bear that out; the overwhelming majority of cases are under $5,000 in value. Specifically, in 2015, 74% of forfeiture cases statewide (152 out of 205) were under $5,000. Only two cases exceeded $100,000 in value.

The second focus of the response letter by Utah County’s law enforcement association slams Representative Greene for “misleading statements” made about what forfeiture law allows. The letter highlights “a article report[ing] on comments made by Representative Greene.”

The problem is that the reference to the article does not contain Rep. Greene’s words. Rather, the reference is from the reporter, who misunderstood and thus mischaracterized forfeiture law. As such, this letter from law enforcement is incorrectly rebutting something that neither Rep. Greene nor our organization contends. They are, in short, setting fire to a straw man.

We remain confident that the recommendations of law enforcement officials who either profoundly misunderstand forfeiture law, or are intentionally misleading about it, should be ignored as the legislation correctly establishes policy designed to protect innocent owners and prevent the taking of property unless a connection to criminal activity exists.

House Bill 22, at the time of this writing, has passed out of the House of Representatives with a 56-17 vote. It will be heard in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee this Tuesday afternoon. Click here to check its status and contact your legislators.