Justice and Due Process

New Data on Asset Forfeiture for 2016

We have previously proposed legislation—which received unanimous support—that requires the government to furnish data each time it takes a person’s property through asset forfeiture.

The latest report, compiling data for 2016, was just released by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The report finds, among other things:

  • There were 400 state forfeiture cases, and 90% of them were done in civil court, where the property owner need not be charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime.
  • 97% of the forfeitures pertained to alleged drug offenses.
  • Cash was forfeited in almost every case; the median value taken was a mere $1,031.
  • 72% of cases involved a default judgment, where the property owner chose not to fight the forfeiture in court.
  • A total of $1.2 million in forfeited money was then given to law enforcement agencies and drug courts in Utah.
  • 93% of cases reported that a criminal charge was associated with the seizure, with 63% resulting in a conviction

A poll of Utah voters conducted last year showed that 86% oppose civil asset forfeiture laws that allow property to be permanently taken from a person who has not been charged with a crime.

A fundamental principle of our criminal justice system is that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. That idea is violated when the government can legally steal the property of a person who is supposedly presumed innocent.

Sadly, police and prosecutors continue to fight efforts to reform this policy, despite strong objections from the public they serve. We commend the Legislature for ignoring this opposition by government employees and for supporting recent reforms we’ve proposed, but this report shows that more reform is needed.