Forfeiture Law Controversy Heats Up

Forfeiture Law Controversy Heats Up

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Karen Scullin ReportingA citizens' group is accusing prosecutors of not abiding by the rules of "Initiative B" adopted by Utah voters.

The measure puts assets seized from criminals into an education fund. But county prosecutors say a law passed by the state legislature doesn't allow them to do that. A judge will decide who's right.

This issue has been heated since voters passed Initiative “B” in 2000. Police don't like the law because money that was used to go after criminals is now, according to the initiative, supposed to go to education and to help crime victims. But there's a big snag keeping anyone from getting the cash.

Cash and cars -- that's what police used to get when they put criminals behind bars and they would use the revenue to fight crime. But then a group of citizens expressed concerns that police were overzealous in their efforts and that the money could be put to better use if it went to schools and crime victims. Out of that, Initiative "B" was passed by voters.

Three years later that group of citizens sees another problem -- county prosecutors not following the rules.

Scott Bullock/Senior Attorney, Institute for Justice: “They have so far transferred at least a quarter of a million dollars to their own accounts rather than the education fund as required by the initiative. The district attorney’s position is wrong, unlawful, and it must end."

But prosecutors who file forfeiture cases disagree. They say a different law passed by the state legislature went into effect just four months after Initiative “B”, and that it says revenue from asset forfeitures should in fact be used to fight crime, a direct conflict with Initiative “B”.

Chad Platt/ Salt Lake County Prosecutor: “We've tried to comply with both laws, but to the degree that they conflict with one another we go with the newer law. "

For now though, the money simply sits in a bank and they haven't filed a forfeiture case since January.

Today the citizens’ group, represented by the Institute for Justice, filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office accusing them of not making sure prosecutors are following the law.

Thom Roberts/Asst. Utah Attorney General: “The attorney general's office got involved, moved to intervene on behalf of the state treasurer to raise the legal issue, does Initiative “B” apply to the drug forfeiture proceedings?"

This should all be cleared up Friday after Third District Judge Tyrone Medley issues a much-awaited ruling on the matter.

Prosecutors say the various local police agencies are now taking their cases to the federal level instead of state. If a forfeiture case is filed federally, the revenue goes into a general crime-fighting fund in Washington D.C. and is distributed throughout the nation instead of just Utah.

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