SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Dec. 18, 2015) – A bill filed in the Utah House for the 2016 legislative session would reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws, making it more difficult for police to seize property. But a loophole in the legislation would allow law enforcement to work with the feds to skirt the more stringent state law.
Rep. Brian Green prefiled House Bill 22 (HB22) on Dec. 16. The legislation would require criminal prosecution and conviction of the property owner before finalizing asset forfeiture. As it stands now, Utah law enforcement officers can seize assets they suspect were involved in criminal activity without even making an arrest.
The legislation would also tighten the criteria for legal forfeiture, stipulating that only assets used to directly facilitate the commission of a federal or state offense and any direct proceeds of criminal activity may be forfeited under the chapter.
As drafted, HB22 leaves a gaping loophole that would render the reforms virtually ineffective in practice. The legislation needs to include amendment language to stop state and local law enforcement from turning cases over to the federal government, thereby circumventing any restrictions placed on asset forfeiture at the state level.
This very scenario plays out frequently in states with strong asset forfeiture laws like California. Police simply avoid such restrictions by turning cases involving seized assets over to the feds. In return, state and local agencies get up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets back through the Federal “Equitable Sharing Program.”