Justice and Due Process

New Data on Civil Asset Forfeiture in 2017

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 2017, was just released by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

For state forfeitures, the report reveals the following data (see below for federal forfeitures):

  • There were 334 state forfeiture cases, and 88% of them were done in civil court, where the property owner need not be charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime.
  • 96% of the forfeitures pertained to alleged drug offenses.
  • Cash was forfeited in almost every case; the median value taken was a mere $1,071.
  • 64% of cases involved a default judgment, where the property owner chose not to fight the forfeiture in court.
  • A total of $2,180,290 in cash was forfeited. Other property forfeited amounted to an estimated $401,653.
  • 87% of cases reported that a criminal charge was associated with the seizure, with 58% resulting in a conviction.

Because many forfeitures are done in federal court, the reporting requirements were amended last year to also require the publication of data on these forfeitures to gain a full picture of the issue. Here are some highlights:

  • There were 110 federal forfeiture cases, 61% of them handled by the Drug Enforcement Administration. 5% were done in civil court, and 11% administratively; 80% were handled in criminal court.
  • The federal government’s equitable sharing program allows local law enforcement to keep 80% of the proceeds from federal forfeiture. In 2017, agencies received a total of $1,118,850 through this program.
  • 69% of cases pertained to alleged narcotics offenses, 29% to alleged money laundering.

A recent poll of Utah voters 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. As such, we continue to press for reforms that ensure only people who are guilty of a crime are subject to having their property permanently taken by the government.