Justice and Due Process

Utah Supreme Court Rules Unanimously on Civil Asset Forfeiture Case

Nearly a year ago, we wrote an amicus brief in a pending case before the Utah Supreme Court dealing with civil asset forfeiture. This case pertains to nearly half a million dollars wrongly taken from a gentleman passing through Utah, then transferred to the federal government.

That transfer violated state law, which through a ballot initiative in 2000 placed barriers around such transfers. Why is this so important? The answer is 80%.

It’s easier to take property under federal forfeiture law where the legal standard is lower. And there’s strong incentive to do so — 80% of the resulting proceeds from the forfeiture are funneled back directly to the seizing law enforcement agency.

That’s different from state law, where forfeitures have stronger legal barriers to overcome by the prosecution. And the money is funneled to a government agency that then disburses it out in grants to various law enforcement agencies.

State law, then, has had barriers in place to deter these transfers to the federal government, providing the property owner with greater property and due process protections. And in this specific case, the property owner’s money was simply handed over to a federal agency without the state law being followed, which limits when such transfers can happen and requires the state judge to sign off on the transfer.

None of that happened, so that became the legal challenge to fight the improper forfeiture and return the money.

Today, the Utah Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in which they agree with the property owner’s arguments — namely, that the property was under the jurisdiction of the state court and should not have been transferred to the federal government.

In reviewing both the law and the intent of the original ballot initiative, the Court noted that “the legislative history here overwhelmingly shows that one of the main goals of the [Forfeiture and Disposition of Property] Act is to provide additional protections to property owners when the state holds their property for forfeiture.”

This result was achieved amid ambiguity in the law requiring the justices to review many different statutes, court opinions, and the aforementioned legislative history and the intent of the Act’s drafters. Thus the opinion also notes that Utah’s law is “not a model of clarity.”

The unanimous opinion is a significant victory for holding state government officers accountable for not complying with the protections that are in state law to prevent forfeiture cases from being handed over to the federal government. It also provides new clarity on how the law can be amended to resolve remaining ambiguities to ensure the intent of the law is more closely followed by those employed by taxpayers to follow it faithfully.

Expect further legislation aiming to do just that in the upcoming session beginning in January.

Read the Court’s opinion here.