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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah police seized nearly $1.9 million in cash in recent years from people under a law allowing law enforcement to take someone's property even if a person isn't charged or convicted of a crime, a state report shows.
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 is the first of its kind offering a picture of the seizures Utah police made. The report covers cases that were reported by police in 2015. Some of the seizures may have occurred several years earlier but were not resolved until last year.
States around the country have been scrutinizing their forfeiture laws in recent years as civil liberties groups and others highlighted abuses where police raked in cash and property despite hazy connections to a purported crime.
The report, compiled by the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, doesn't offer details about how much of the seized property came from people who were convicted or even faced charges.
Utah's civil asset forfeiture law allows police to seize someone's cash, homes or cars if they believe it's tied to a crime as a way to fight large-scale crime operations or drug kingpins.
Connor Boyack, president of libertarian-leaning nonprofit group Libertas Institute, said the report shows the law isn't being used to primarily go after major criminal enterprises.
Boyack's group pushed for a law requiring the new asset report and is advocating for a new law requiring someone actually be convicted of a crime for police to keep their property.
A bill that would have done that failed during the legislative session earlier this year, but Boyack said the group will push for it again next year.
"Right now, there is a very real potential that the money and property of innocent people are being taken," Boyack said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in an email that state law allows innocent people plenty of time to fight to get their property back in civil forfeitures. He points out that the report shows 150 property owners out of 393 civil forfeiture cases claimed they were innocent, leading to 51 people getting cash returned.
Gill said civil forfeitures "serve an important function in society." He said the report's findings that most seizures come from drug-related crimes shows the process "has a significant impact on criminal drug distribution networks on the front line."
Cash seizures accounted for 86 percent of the seizures, followed by cars at 12 percent. Firearms finished a distant third at 1 percent. The rest involved items such as computers and televisions. Those stats didn't surprise Gill.
"The era of street level drug dealers driving top of the line Porsches and Corvettes has passed," Gill said in the email. "Criminal syndicates have become more sophisticated in their distribution networks, which limits the value of assets that are seized in any single action."
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.
The state gave out nearly $3 million in 2015, with most of it going back to law enforcement agencies for body cameras, surveillance equipment, training, vehicles and more.
Police have to first make their purchases and submit a receipt or invoice to be reimbursed, according to Richard Ziebarth with Utah's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which awards the grants.
Darren Levitt, a Salt Lake City attorney who handles asset forfeiture cases, said that in order to get the cash or property back, people have to fight for it in civil court. Levitt said the burden of proof is much lower than the criminal burden of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The government must only prove there's clear and convincing evidence that someone committed a crime.
Levitt said he only gets five to 10 forfeiture cases a year and suspects many people let it go because the cost of hiring an attorney is more than the cash or property that police seized.
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