By an overwhelming 69 to 31 percent margin, Utah voters on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative that reigns in some of the most outrageous civil forfeiture laws to finance the war on drugs. The initiative addressed three problems with forfeitures: seizure of third party property, legal representation for people whose property is seized, and where money from sale of seized property goes.
The initiative provides more legal protection for third party victims of property seizures. Under most civil forfeiture laws, a person who lends a car to a friend who then uses it to commit a crime generally has his property seized regardless of whether he knew the friend or associate was going to use the property to commit a crime. In Detroit, for example, a property seizure case made national headlines when a woman had her car seized after her husband used the car to solicit a prostitute.
The measure also allows people whose property is seized to have the same access to state-provided attorneys that they would have in a criminal case. This is important because often the costs of hiring lawyers and taking legal action to regain improperly seized property is often greater than the value of the property itself.
Finally, the most important part of the measure is that the proceeds from sales of seized property go to schools rather than police departments. Utah police complained this will cost the millions of dollars in funds they need to fight the drug war, which is exactly the point. When police benefit financially from the results of their property seizures, there is an incentive to focus on increasing property seizures. In several high profile cases around the country, police have targeted the homes of wealthy individuals for relatively minor drug and cocaine possession charges because of the financial rewards awaiting the police department from sales of the expensive property (in several cases, for example, yachts have been seized when drug officers found a handful of marijuana cigarettes owned by a guest on the boat).
These three changes to forfeiture laws bring some common sense to property seizure and should be used nationwide in reforming a property grab by police that is out of control.
Majority Approves Initiative Limiting Property Seizure. Deseret News, November 8, 2000.