Forfeiting an offender's property and prosecuting them criminally does not violate the constitutional "double jeopardy" prohibition, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In a split opinion, Supreme Court Justice I. Daniel Stuart, writing for the court, reversed a 1995 split Utah Court of Appeals decision and affirmed a trial for a man charged with drug possession.The ruling was issued in the case of Wallace Davis, who was stopped in 1994 by West Valley police for a vehicle license violation. He was arrested and his vehicle impounded after it was discovered he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. One quarter-gram of cocaine was found in the vehicle.
The Supreme Court decided that forfeiture of property did not make criminal punishment unconstitutional because Davis did not provide "substantial arguments," and only claimed the penalty was disproportionate to the cost of his crime.
Davis originally moved to dismiss the criminal charge, saying that forfeiture of the vehicle was prosecution enough.
But prosecutors argued that the value of his car, estimated between $2,925 and $4,600, offset the $2,500 costs of investigative actions against Davis.
The forfeiture, therefore, can be seen as a civil penalty not subject to double-jeopardy concerns. The lower court had viewed the forfeiture as a form of deterrence or retribution.
Federal rulings have tightened the definition of punishment since the Court of Appeals ruling, Stewart wrote in the 3-2 opinion.
Prosecutors have wielded asset forfeiture as a tool to deprive offenders of property used to transport or produce drugs or obtained through drug proceeds. Forfeiture has traditionally been a separate civil proceeding against drug suspects' property, but a recent Utah statute merges forfeitures with criminal drug prosecutions.
Defense attorneys have denounced asset forfeiture as an end-run around the criminal-justice process that has tougher burdens of proof and constitutional safeguards. To prevail in a forfeiture proceeding, prosecutors prove their case by only a preponderance of evidence, the burden normally associated with civil cases, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, as in criminal cases.