Lawmakers overturn 2000 forfeiture law

House passage of SB175 nullifies citizen initiative

Published: Wednesday, March 3 2004 7:07 a.m. MST

Utah lawmakers overturned a citizen ballot initiative Tuesday, as the House passed a bill that would overhaul the state's forfeiture law and restore what some call the process of "policing for profit."

SB175 overturns portions of state ballot Initiative B, which made it illegal for police to keep the proceeds of properties seized and sold as part of criminal investigations. The House passed the bill on a vote of 46-27. It now goes back the Senate for concurrence on a floor amendment that allows anyone acquitted of a crime to reclaim his or her seized assets.

The passage of SB175 marks the first time legislative staff and state elections director Amy Naccarato could remember that a citizen ballot initiative has been overturned by lawmakers.

"I don't know for sure, but you'd have to go back to the 1960s," Naccarato said. "The only other (initiatives) that made it to the ballot were in 2000. That was English Only and the Uniform Forfeiture Procedures Act (Initiative B)."

The goal of SB175 is to strengthen the rights of property owners by making it harder for police to seize assets, House sponsor Rep. Steve Urquhart said. At the same time, it will free up much needed money to cover the costs of expensive drug interdiction cases.

"Personally, I think there is a drug war going on, and I want our law enforcement to have the ability to fight that war," Urquhart, R-St. George, said.

Urquhart was expected to amend the bill to send federal forfeiture procedure to a legislative interim committee for study, while accessing state and federal money locked up since 2000. He decided against that after discussions broke down with Initiative B supporters.

Tuesday's House vote was a huge victory for police who have worked for three years to change the law. Millions of federal forfeiture dollars diverted by the initiative will now come back to local police. State forfeiture money will go to a dedicated account monitored and distributed by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That money has been going to the Uniform School Fund.

But Utahns for Property Protection (UPP), the group that put Initiative B on the ballot, saw the vote as a sad day for citizens rights, said Janet Jenson, UPP's attorney who drafted the initiative. UPP is opposed to forfeiture not only because its incentive is to fund police work but also because some forfeiture procedures deny citizens due process in law.

"I'm sure it will be a disappointment to the 70 percent of voters who thought that they had made a law to discover that the Legislature doesn't care what they think," Jenson said. "I guess we'll see how the voters respond and I think they will."

Utah voters seemed to be front and center in the minds of those who spoke for and against the bill Tuesday.

Proponents argued voters were "duped" and "sold a bill of goods" by billionaire George Soros, who pumped more than $700,000 into the initiative effort and is well known for funding efforts to legalize marijuana around the country. Nor did supporters see evidence of forfeiture abuses by Utah police.

"I do not see the police salivating over the possibility of seizing drug dealers' property for their own benefit," Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan said. "I would hope you don't allow this pervasive effort by those who would legalize drugs sway your vote."

Opponents said that they support police and want to win the "war on drugs" but don't like the idea of "cops on commission." Nor did Utah voters, who understood the impact of the initiative when they voted, Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Orem said.

"I find it preposterous to say that our electorate is stupid," Thompson said. "That just doesn't ring right."

Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said the issue should have gone back to voters for a fix of the law.

"I think the citizens have spoken. I'm not sure whether they were sold a bill of goods or not; we can say that on any issue, whatever side puts the most votes on the table," he said. "We need to rely on the citizens."


E-mail: jdobner@desnews.com