Initiative B could revise forfeiture laws

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    By Carolyn Peterson

    Proponents say it protects Utah residents. Opponents say it protects drug dealers.

    Initiative B is on the ballot this election. The initiative, which revises current forfeiture law, is a fight to the death for both sides.

    When police think property has been involved in certain types of crime, they can seize that property. If they can prove it was used in criminal activities, they forfeit the property.

    The original owners loose ownership of forfeited property and it becomes the property of the police. The police then auction off the property and use the money for narcotics law enforcement. Leftover cash is sent to the Wildlife Fund.

    Proponents of Initiative B say there is a potential for abuse with current forfeiture laws.

    “Initiative B removes the incentive of police to abuse property rights,” said Janet Jenson, attorney for Utahns for Property Protection and author of the initiative.

    “Right now, police aren’t held accountable for the property,” Jenson said.

    Provisions of Initiative B

    Initiative B changes several elements of forfeiture law.

    1. Requires the agency to prepare an inventory of the property

    2. Police must notify owners immediately, then the prosecuting attorney. Allow for possible owners to claim the property.

    3. Owners can:

    * void the forfeiture if they weren’t notified

    * obtain immediate release of the property if they weren’t notified

    * sue for negligent damage or loss of the property

    * have their attorney fees paid for

    4. Prohibits forfeiture (not seizure) if the owner was unaware the property was being used in a crime

    5. Increases the burden of proof to the police

    6. If owners aren’t notified, the police must pay three times the amount of the forfeited property

    7. Remaining assets are sent to the Uniform School Fund

    Opponents of the initiative include most members of law enforcement, the attorney general, and both candidates for attorney general.

    Captain Craig Turner, a member of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office said, “If Initiative B passes, police will be too afraid to do forfeitures.”

    “It will effectively stop them from taking place.”

    Opponents say the initiative requires too much notification. Current law requires police to notify owners in writing once.

    With Initiative B, all potential owners of the property need to be notified as well, with a liability of triple damages, if the requirement isn’t met.

    “A diligent search for potential owners would be costly and time-consuming,” said Jan Graham, Utah’s attorney general.

    Opponents also counter the charge that innocent people suffer under current forfeiture laws.

    A 1999 Audit of Asset Forfeiture by the Auditor General found that 91 percent of owners in forfeiture cases were later arrested and charged with crimes.

    “Innocent people can’t have their property taken,” said Representative Gary Cox.

    According to current forfeiture law, if a person wasn’t aware that their property was being used for illegal purposes, the property can’t be forfeited.

    “What the law says and how it’s practiced are two different things, sometimes,” Jenson said.

    Supporters of the initiative say there are abuses in the system.

    A small percentage of forfeiture abuses were uncovered by the audit. Two departments kept poor records of assets. Seized property was lost. Departments used the forfeited money without showing sufficient need for it. However, the audit noted these abuses were rare.

    Proponents of the initiative stress that the rarity of these abuses isn’t important.

    “The way the law is now, police have an economic incentive to forfeit. The assets go back to them,” Jenson said.

    Campaign Efforts

    The initiative is sponsored by George Soros, John Sperling and Peter Lewis.

    The three billionaires paid over half a million dollars to fund Utah’s campaign, compared to the $15,000 campaign of the opposition.

    They have sponsored 13 similar measures all over the country. 12 have passed. All deal with different types of drug legislation.

    In 1996, Soros, Lewis and Sperling, introduced California’s Prop 215, legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. Other measures favor treatment over punishment for drug criminals.

    Forfeiture initiatives similar to Utah’s are on the ballot in Oregon and Massachusetts, this year.

    If Initiative B passes, it would take effect March 20, of next year.

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