SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Highway Patrol may have to return almost $500,000 to a California man whose money was seized during a 2016 traffic stop.
The Supreme Court of Utah ruled Wednesday in favor of Kyle Savely, 32, of Los Angeles, who had appealed a 3rd District Court ruling in 2017 that dismissed his petition against the highway patrol.
The legal battle began back on Nov. 27, 2016, when Savely was pulled over by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper in Summit County for following another vehicle too closely. The trooper searched the vehicle for drugs and did not find any, but seized an “undetermined amount of U.S. currency contained in 52 bundles," a $50 bill, a phone and other personal property during the search, according to an asset seizure notification form attached to Savely's initial complaint filed in 3rd District Court on Feb. 10, 2017.
The value of the money was later determined to be $489,480 and had been seized under the Forfeiture and Disposition of Property Act (FDPA). A federal magistrate filed a warrant to seize the money in January 2017 for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the highway patrol sent a check to the DEA that was never cashed, according to court documents.
Savely’s lawsuit claimed that under the disposition of property act, the highway patrol had 75 days to file a criminal charge, file a transfer petition or get a restraining order to justify the seizure. But because it didn't, the property should have been returned. It asked for the court to issue “an order immediately releasing and returning said property" to Savely, and also have Utah Highway Patrol pay for attorney fees, costs, interest and any additional measures the court deemed necessary.
A state district court initially ruled in favor of Savely 11 days after the lawsuit was filed. Then the highway patrol filed a motion to reconsider, and the court dismissed the petition for “lack of jurisdiction” because of the federal seizure warrant that had been issued Jan. 13, 2017, put the matter into federal jurisdiction, and thus highway patrol didn’t violate the 75-day limit, according to court documents.
Utah’s Supreme Court decision noted that a state district court has in rem jurisdiction or control over property held for forfeiture. In the court opinion, Justice Constandinos Himonas noted some "ambiguity" as to when the property becomes held for forfeiture and determined “property becomes property held for forfeiture, at the very least, when a seizing agency serves a notice of intent to seek forfeiture under the (Forfeiture and Disposition of Property Act).”
In the Savely case, he wrote that meant the property forfeiture began Nov. 27, 2016, not when the federal warrant was issued on Jan. 13, 2017.
He added Savely had been given the notice of forfeiture “long before any federal seizure warrant was issued,” thus he overruled the district court's dismissal. He also wrote that it may mean the highway patrol needs to return the seized money to Savely.
"The state district court did not lose its in rem jurisdiction simply because UHP is not allowed to take further action to effectuate the forfeiture of the property," Himonas wrote. "Indeed, the state district court retains in rem jurisdiction to force UHP to return the property to Mr. Savely."