Police departments in Utah claimed nearly $1.9 million from citizens in 2015 through the process of civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize property even if the person involved has not been charged or convicted of a crime. The Associated Press reports:
“Nearly all of the seizures came during investigations of alleged drug crimes and most involved amounts of cash ranging from $500 to $2,500, a report that was released this month showed. The largest cash seizure was $157,000.”
The report referenced in the story came from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, and was released on July 1. In addition to quantifying the amount of cash taken by law enforcement, the report also showed that the overwhelming majority of seizures by police involved civil cases. Out of nearly 400 asset forfeiture cases in Utah last year, 94 percent were handled under the process of civil forfeiture. Only six percent of forfeiture cases ended with a guilty plea or criminal verdict in a criminal forfeiture proceeding.
Much of the money being seized is ultimately redirected back to police departments, as the AP notes:
“In Utah, police departments don’t get to directly keep or sell the assets they collect. They’re instead collected by the state, which redistributes the money to drug court programs, crime task forces and grants to police departments for equipment, training and other uses.”
In 2015, Utah agencies received $3.6 million in forfeiture funds from both state and federal programs.
This process, which the Institute for Justice has dubbed “Policing for Profit,” puts an incentive in place for law enforcement to continue seizing assets via civil forfeiture.
An editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune made a strong indictment of the practice:
“The legal euphemism is “civil forfeiture.” A more accurate term would be legalized theft.
“It is sad that otherwise honorable public officials defend the practice of keeping money found in a car, on the grounds that only drug dealers carry cash, and a system where those who lose money or property have to go through a legal process that costs more than they lost to win their money back.”