Property Rights

Prosecutors Aim to Sabotage Forfeiture Reform

Police and prosecutors continue to fight efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture—a law allowing them to take property from innocent people not charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime.

In the last legislative session, prosecutors got the police to issue a highly misleading letter to the legislature hours before a key vote. A second letter issued doubles down on the attempt to misrepresent facts in order to protect a policy that makes prosecutor’s jobs easier.

Following a poll revealing that 86% of Utah voters oppose civil asset forfeiture, and a significant outreach effort by Libertas Institute to the public, pressure has increased to once again attempt to reform the law. (And now we have the unfortunate distinction of lagging behind California on the issue…)

But prosecutors and the police are not sitting this one out. In fact, for several months they have been organizing to try and undermine our reform efforts by sponsoring competing legislation, working together with Senator Daniel Thatcher.

This fall, Senator Thatcher presented before a group of police executives and told them he was going to run his own bill “to prevent something worse”—as in, to undermine the reform bill that would restrict the ability of the government to legally steal property from innocent people.

Yesterday, the Judiciary Interim Committee heard a presentation on the reform bill—and passed it out favorably over the objections of the law enforcement associations and prosecutors asking the committee not to. (You can listen to the recording here.)

Here is the list of organizations working with Senator Thatcher to undermine the forfeiture reform effort:

  • Utah Chiefs of Police Association
  • Attorney General’s Office
  • Statewide Association of Prosecutors
  • Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office
  • Weber County Attorney’s Office
  • Tooele County Attorney’s Office
  • The Utah Association of Counties
  • The Utah Sheriffs Association
  • The Utah League of Cities and Towns

That’s right—your taxpayer dollars are being used to fight against reforms that will protect property rights and due process. As we outline in our policy brief on this issue, prosecutors are fighting against changes that would make their job harder. But if upholding the Constitution requires making their job a little harder, then so be it.

Prosecutors are getting police to oppose the reform effort by telling them that forfeitures will stop completely if it is successful—and, therefore, that drug kingpins and criminals will be able to profit from crime. Law enforcement officers understandably do not like that. But prosecutors are being completely disingenuous by saying this to the police.

Why? Because criminal forfeiture is not being affected by the reform effort. Prosecutors will still be able to confiscate property from convicted criminals. And nothing about how police operate will change, either; law enforcement officials will be able to seize property they believe is involved in crime, just as they do now.

If anything, law enforcement officials should support forfeiture reform efforts in order to improve public relations, uphold their oath to the Constitution, and proactively portray to Utahns that they aim to protect the rights of innocent people. Let the prosecutors do their job—if even it’s harder—but don’t mislead police officers into thinking that forfeitures will stop altogether. If they do, that’s a conscious decision on the part of prosecutors to shirk their duties and opt out of using the criminal forfeiture process.

It is unfortunate that we have to advocate for reform in opposition to well-funded organizations and government agencies that are using our own tax dollars to do so. But yesterday’s committee meeting made clear that these organizations are in the wrong on this issue, and that the reforms being proposed are sorely needed, and likely to pass in the upcoming legislative session.

Curious to learn more? See our policy brief, or read through the legislation that will be considered in the upcoming legislative session. Or sign the petition!