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‘Highway robbery’ or a way to fight drug cartels? Utah police defend law that lets them take cash, even from suspects who are never arrested.

Published: March 7, 2019
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A Utah lawmaker set a goal to remove any incentive any Utah police officer could have to unnecessarily take money from someone.

State law allows officers to seize property — even from people who are never charged, let alone convicted of a crime — under a process called civil asset forfeiture.

Concerned about the potential for abuse, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, had hoped SB109 would put more safeguards in place.

But even the insinuation that an officer would improperly seize cash or items from a suspect brought a big backlash from Utah’s police agencies, where leaders argue the tool, used largely against drug dealers, is not abused.

At the end of the day, Utah’s laws aren’t going to change — at least not this year.

Yet, the public policy debate isn’t going away.

‘It’s highway robbery’

Police in Utah have taken millions of dollars in recent years under a law that allows officers to seize property and cash if they believe it is connected to criminal activity. In 2016, police seized $1.6 million in cash and property. In 2017, the last full year of data, police seized $2.5 million.

And officers don’t need to get a conviction to keep it — though the most recent state data shows 87 percent of the time, prosecutors do at least file criminal charges.

So far this year, police departments have filed court documents detailing 30 asset forfeiture cases, all in connection to suspected drug activity.

The smallest sum of money was $201, taken from a man stopped by a police officer for riding his bicycle at night without proper lighting. He had warrants for his arrest, so an officer searched him and found a few dozen prescription pills and six grams of methamphetamine. Officers took the man’s money, claiming in court papers that it was “believed to have facilitated the illegal possession or distribution of a controlled substance.”

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