Press Releases

Utah Legislature Unanimously and Unknowingly Gutted Controversial 2000 Citizen Initiative

Salt Lake City, UT (December 17, 2013) — In a newly released policy analysis, Libertas Institute sheds light on a potentially deceptive change to forfeiture law in Utah. In the 2013 general session, the Utah legislature overturned several protections introduced through a 2000 citizen initiative—and evidently no legislator even knew it happened.

“69% of Utahns voted for an initiative in 2000 that restricted the government’s ability to seize property, and without even knowing they did it, the legislature has gutted several of the restraints that had been in place since that time,” said Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute. “Lawmakers were told that HB384 was a simple ‘re-codification’ bill, and with that assurance unanimously voted for the bill with no discussion at all. Once they read our analysis and realize what they were led to vote for, we imagine that many of them will be quite upset.”

The bill sponsors, Representative Brad Dee and Senator Curt Bramble, introduced their bill to colleagues as a “re-codification” of existing law, when in fact the re-codified bill—totaling 51 pages—made several sweeping changes. The released report details five of them:

  1. Change in state court oversight. The initiative required state courts to authorize transferring forfeiture cases to the federal government, where forfeiture is more easy and profitable, but the 2013 amendments changed this oversight and restraint.
  2. Change in definition of a claimant, disclaiming now allowed. The 2013 amendments limit who may file a claim against seized property, and enable law enforcement officials to seize property more easily by suggesting that the property owner will be released, and won’t be charged, if he disclaims ownership of the seized property.
  3. Change in time limits. Prior to the 2013 amendments, prosecutors had to file in court within 60 days, allowing the property owner to contest the seizure. The new law extends this to 90 days.
  4. Consequence eliminated for a prosecutor failing to timely file. The 2000 initiative had “teeth” by requiring prosecutors to file in court on time, the consequence being that failure to do so would require returning the property and dropping the case. The 2013 amendments made court filing optional, rather than required, and as a result eliminated the consequence for failing to file on time.
  5. Attorney fees awarded to the state. Under the initiative, an owner whose property was wrongly seized was also guaranteed compensation for attorney fees in fighting for the release of the property. The 2013 amendments now allow the state to be awarded attorney fees as well, and make awarding a successful claimant optional, thereby introducing substantial risk in fighting the state and disincentivizing a court battle over the property.

These five changes are explained in detail in the policy analysis, which concludes by recommending “rolling back the key changes outlined in our analysis to restore what the public, and legislators, understood forfeiture law to be.”