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OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- Law-enforcement officials want the Legislature to restore to them the forfeiture revenue taken away when voters approved Initiative B.
While they continue to deny they ever violated anyone's rights when they seized property of suspected drug traffickers, they say their proposed amendments to Initiative B would provide new safeguards against abuse.
Deputy Utah Attorney General Kirk Torgensen drafted the proposed changes, which are set to be presented at the 2004 session.
However, the law-enforcement officials still are uncertain whether they will push the legislation in the upcoming session, as some legislators have suggested an election year may not be the best time to go against the voters' wishes.
Torgensen, speaking to an Ogden civic group Thursday, said the war on drugs is "a battle between good and evil" and he said Initiative B was pushed by out-of-state interests he called "perpetrators of a fraud."
"This guy's the fraud if he doesn't believe in the constitution," responded Bert N. Smith, founder of the Smith & Edwards surplus and department store in Farr West and a major proponent of Initiative B. "It stands for nothing more than due process of law."
Torgensen, police chiefs and other officials have been touring the state in recent weeks, speaking to civic groups, meeting with legislators and others to test the waters for the bill's chances. Kal Farr, executive director of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, spoke to the Ogden Breakfast Exchange Club last week. "We feel like David against Goliath," Farr said in an interview.
Their message is that Initiative B has given drug dealers the upper hand.
"This is absolutely killing law enforcement," Torgensen said.
Initiative B, approved by voters in November 2000 by a 69 percent margin, requires all proceeds from assets seized from suspects must go to the state's Uniform School Fund. It also adds new layers of due process in criminal and civil prosecutions.
Utah formerly received an 80 percent share of assets federal agents seize in Utah, but those proceeds now go elsewhere in the nation.
Torgensen and Mike Ashment, commander of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, cite the arrest of a suspected dealer by Ashment's agents last week in Ogden. The case has the potential for $500,000 in seizure funds.
"In our draft bill, that would be Mike's $500,000," Torgensen said, "Half of it would be going to the strike force, and the other half to drug courts."
Instead, the seizure will be going federal, out of Utah, he said.
Smith said the claim of losing the drug war because of Initiative B was "all baloney. A total lie. ... They can have all the money they can get out of a convicted drug dealer through due process, upon conviction."
Torgensen said his bill would beef up protections against the fear officials said drove Initiative B in the first place -- seizure of property from innocent owners who had nothing to do with the suspected drug dealer.
Torgensen said his bill would raise the standard of evidence needed to complete the forfeiture proceedings on seizures in court, and award attorney fees to the other side if the government loses the case.
With Initiative B having passed with 69 percent of the vote, many legislators are reluctant to change it.
"Not a majority, but key legislators have been telling us not to bring up our bill at this year's session, which comes in an election year," Torgensen said.
Torgensen said he, Farr and others likely will decide within two weeks whether to hold off until 2005.
"I think there's going to be meaningful changes, based on the response from community groups we've been speaking to," Farr said. "It's just a question of whether it will be this coming year or next."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)