Utah Asset Forfeiture Reform Law Under Attack 2/20/04

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In 2002, Utah voters approved Initiative B, which drastically tightened the state's asset forfeiture laws. The initiative won with an impressive 70% of the vote, making crystal clear the will of the state's electorate. But the state's law enforcement apparatus, including state Attorney General Mike Shurtleff, whose job it is to enforce the law, has never accepted the Utah Uniform Property Protection Act. Now, it is in real danger of being undone. A measure that would substantially gut the law in the name of "reform" passed the Utah Senate Thursday and is headed for the House.

Prior to the voter-approved reform in 2002, law enforcement agencies in the state were entitled to keep all the booty they seized -- almost exclusively from drug offenders -- but under current law they are supposed to turn all seized assets over to the Uniform School Fund. The bill approved by the Senate would undo that by allowing police to keep seized goods.

Not that police ever really stopped profiting from asset forfeiture. A year ago, state auditor Ed Alter found that police continued to keep asset forfeiture funds rather than obeying state law. Alter had to ask Attorney General Shurtleff to retrieve nearly $300,000 police had convinced district court judges to hand over to them. And by all accounts, Utah law enforcement has done an end-run around the law by turning over seizures to its federal partners, who in turn kick back a percentage to the locals.

Still, since July 1, 2003, some $483,500 in seized assets has made its way to its intended end use, the betterment of education for Utah's children. They would see no more of it if the bill, SB 175, passes.

"My bill goes right to the heart of preserving Initiative B and even strengthens it," claimed the bill's sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan), in a display of verbal audacity before darkly adding that out-of-staters had funded the initiative. "They added some language that protected property owners, but the unintended consequence was the elimination of our efforts at drug interdiction."

"He has to claim that to get it through," scoffed Salt Lake attorney Janet Jenson, who coauthored the initiative, "but SB 175 actually weakens just about every aspect of the law. All the procedural protections have been gutted. The worst thing is that it would let all the money go back to law enforcement," she told DRCNet. "The whole idea was to remove law enforcement's incentive to abuse people's rights by removing their profit motive. How this could be called an improvement, I don't know."

But it will be tough to stop, said Jenson. "The attorney general and his assistants are working full-time to get this undone, at taxpayers' expense. We'll try to stop it, but it will be hard. We don't get paid to go sit at the capitol."

While Utah reformers got national help during the initiative campaign, that help has largely vanished. The only organized opposition to the bill is Accountability Utah (http://www.accountabilityutah.org), which is not a drug reform group but a socially conservative grassroots organization. The group distributed flyers in Sen. Buttars' home neighborhood over the weekend in which they referred to him as "a dangerous man."

"We aren't into liberalizing drugs, but we are into due process," said the group's David Hansen. "We just see this as a real conflict of interest when police seize goods and then turn around and use them to fund their own operations. We feel like the drug war is being used to make war on Americans," he told DRCNet. "SB 175 makes it so the locals can pick up more federal money by doing more seizures."

Like Jenson, Accountability Utah has limited resources with which to fend off the "reform," while state officials, law enforcement, and one of the state's largest newspapers are working to ensure it passes. The Deseret News waxed positively Orwellian as its editorialists strove to turn black into white. Asset forfeiture reform has "tied the hands of local narcotics officers," it claimed, adding that SB 175 is a "compromise" that "builds upon protections Initiative B gives citizens" and "refines" the divvying-up of the loot.

"The money now flows through the state treasurer's office for deposit in the Uniform School Fund," the News noted. "However, little money has actually come to the state because local law enforcement has begun partnering with federal law-enforcement and prosecution agencies, rather than handling cases on their own. Federal agencies aren't covered by the law's restraints." Clearly, the News sees that the way to deal with police non-compliance with the law is to reward it. But that's not the point. The point is that those outside forces that helped pass the initiative "are led by people who are vocal in their support for the legalization of drugs" and they "exploited" the newspaper's presumably dim-witted readers. The News and Attorney General Shurtleff know better than the state's naïve voters.

The bill has now been forwarded to the House Clerk. If it is to be stopped, something is going to have to happen soon.

Read the bill online at:
http://www.le.state.ut.us/~2004/bills/sbillint/sb0175s02.htm

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Issue #325, 2/20/04 Editorial: Long in the Making | ACLU, Drug Reform Groups Sue over Federal Ban on Public Transit Drug Reform Ads | Utah Asset Forfeiture Reform Law Under Attack | As Continental Harm Reduction Movement Hits Bump, Brazil House Passes Drug Possession Depenalization Bill | Oakland "Regulate and Tax" Marijuana Legalization Initiative Getting Underway -- Poll Says Public Support Strong | Action Alert: HEA Campaign Entering New Stage -- Your Letters and Phone Calls Needed! | Newsbrief: DEA Moving to Restrict Vicodin | Newsbrief: Canadian Government Reintroduces Marijuana Decriminalization Bill | Newsbrief: Methadone Maintenance Doctors Under Attack in Britain | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Drug War First -- Florida Town Offers Used Car Drug Inspections | This Week in History | Psilocybin Cancer Research Study Seeking Participants | Asian Harm Reduction Network Launches Online Resource Collection | Offer and Appeal: New StoptheDrugWar.org Ink Stamps and Strobe Lights -- DRCNet Needs Your Support in 2004 | The Reformer's Calendar
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