IJ Helps End Utah’s Prosecution for Profit

October 1, 2003

October 2003

IJ Helps End Utah’s Prosecution for Profit

By Scott Bullock

It is refreshing to have a case that gets resolved both quickly and favorably. We are happy to report that our challenge to Utah’s civil forfeiture abuse, mentioned in our last newsletter, has already been resolved and that the citizens of Utah won.

As you will recall, we challenged prosecutors in three of Utah’s largest counties who decided that they did not have to abide by a forfeiture reform initiative passed overwhelmingly by Utah citizens in 2000. Under the initiative, civil forfeiture proceeds must go into the state’s education fund or be used to compensate victims of crime. Prosecutors hated this requirement because under the old law, they were able to keep forfeiture proceeds for their own use. Utah law enforcement officials tried to defeat the initiative at the polls, then in court. Both efforts failed. But three district attorneys took their unseemly campaign one step further by refusing to abide by the initiative altogether. Using completely unfounded arguments, the prosecutors 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.

That is when the Institute became involved. This past June, we put law enforcement officials on notice that we would file suit for the return of the misappropriated forfeiture proceeds and to prevent the district attorneys from any future efforts to ignore the initiative’s requirements. The prosecutors capitulated in July. Perhaps realizing deep down how foolish their position was—especially after a state court judge in an ongoing civil forfeiture proceeding ruled that the initiative had to be followed—the district attorneys in all three counties agreed to surrender the misappropriated funds.

The response of the prosecutors was very telling. After agreeing to turn over the funds and abide by the initiative, Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom told the Associated Press: “Doing forfeitures is [now] way down the line in my priorities.”

IJ has long-argued that when law enforcement officials are entitled to keep forfeiture proceeds for their own use, it corrupts their priorities and creates a perverse incentive to take property away from its rightful owners. Fair and impartial administration of justice—the duty of law enforcement—takes a back seat to the pursuit of profit, all at the expense of the constitutional rights of citizens. Mr. Yocum’s comment demonstrates that civil forfeiture is about money, not catching criminals.

Giving law enforcement officials a direct financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture proceeds is not only terrible public policy, it violates the Constitution as well. In the first decision of its kind, a New Jersey court in 2002, in a lawsuit brought by IJ, held that the state’s civil forfeiture law, which, like Utah’s old law, permitted law enforcement officials to profit from the law’s operation, violated the due process rights of the state’s citizens. We will continue our campaign to end perverse profit incentives in civil forfeiture throughout the country.

Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.

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