IJ Represents Utah Citizens Fighting Forfeiture Abuse

Ending "Policing for Profit":

IJ Represents Utah Citizens Fighting Forfeiture Abuse

By Scott Bullock

It is a bedrock principle of our Republic that executive branch officials follow constitutional laws passed by the legislature or the people—even if they might personally disagree with them. Unfortunately, prosecutors in three of Utah’s largest counties have decided to simply refuse to abide by the forfeiture reform initiative—Initiative B—overwhelmingly passed by 69 percent of Utah voters in 2000.

Using a wholly illegitimate justification, these county prosecutors have thus far diverted close to a quarter of a million dollars in forfeiture funds into their own accounts rather than to the state education fund, as required by the initiative. The Utah attorney general’s response has been timid and toothless.

When public officials evade the law or violate the Constitution, it is up to citizens to hold them accountable. That is exactly what the Institute is now doing representing Utah citizens who demand that law enforcement officials abide by Initiative B and the U.S. Constitution.

The overriding goal for prosecutors and police officers must be the fair and impartial administration of justice. Utah voters re-enshrined this basic principle into law through Initiative B. Before its passage, Utah law permitted prosecutors and police to keep money and property confiscated from individuals through the state’s forfeiture law, thus giving them a direct financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture efforts.

This statutory scheme undermined law enforcement’s responsibility to enforce the law fairly and instead provided perverse incentives for police agencies to profit directly from these forfeitures. Under Initiative B, revenue generated through forfeiture procedures must now be deposited into the state Uniform School Trust Fund, to be used for education in addition to compensating victims of crime.

Many Utah law enforcement officials, including the attorney general, adamantly opposed Initiative B during the campaign. And since its resounding victory, the AG has led a campaign in the legislature—so far unsuccessful—to torpedo Initiative B.

Not to be outdone, the district attorneys of Utah’s Weber, Salt Lake and Davis counties have chosen to flagrantly violate the initiative. In January 2003, the Utah state auditor found that law enforcement agencies in those three counties kept more than $237,000 in forfeited revenue for law enforcement rather than depositing the funds in the education account.

Given his vociferous opposition to Initiative B, it should not be altogether surprising that the attorney general’s response to the prosecutors’ flagrant disregard for the law has been less than aggressive, thus giving rise to the need for citizen action.

On behalf of a group of Utah citizens, we filed a ?notice of claim? with the attorney general, demanding that he take immediate action against the district attorneys to enjoin them from any further diversions of forfeiture funds and to return the misappropriated money to the education fund. If his office does not act, we will file suit to hold public officials accountable for their illegal actions.

Initiative B ended the same practice the court found unconstitutional in IJ’s New Jersey forfeiture litigation—giving police and prosecutors a direct profit incentive to take property. Indeed, our campaign to end profit incentives under civil forfeiture law has become the centerpiece of our forfeiture litigation, and our case in Utah will build upon our success in New Jersey by ensuring that public officials cannot evade citizen efforts to force changes to unconstitutional state practices.

Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.

 

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