Washington, D.C.—Prosecutors in three of Utah’s
largest counties are flagrantly violating the state’s
forfeiture reform law by keeping money and property
confiscated from individuals—a direct violation of a
nationally recognized voter initiative that required such
funds go into a state education account. Today Utah citizens,
represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for
Justice, will take matters into their own hands and file
papers with the state’s attorney general, demanding that law
enforcement officials follow the initiative and the U.S.
"A bedrock principle of our system of government is that
police and prosecutors follow constitutional laws passed by
the legislature or the people—even if they might personally
disagree with them," stated Scott Bullock, an Institute for
Justice senior attorney. Bullock was the lead attorney in an
IJ case that recently struck down New Jersey’s civil
forfeiture law, which had allowed police and prosecutors to
keep forfeited resources for their own use. "We filed our
action today to hold public officials accountable to the
people they serve."
Prior to Initiative B’s passage in 2000 with 69 percent of
the vote, law enforcement agencies were permitted to keep
money and property confiscated from individuals through the
state’s forfeiture law, thus giving them a direct financial
stake in the outcome of forfeiture procedures. Initiative B
required that forfeiture proceeds be deposited into the state
Uniform School Trust Fund, to be used for education, and to
compensate victims of crime.
"Police and prosecutors must make decisions on the basis of
justice, not on the potential for profit," said Bullock,
"Initiative B thankfully ended a perverse incentive system."
Despite the clear mandate of Initiative B, prosecutors from
Weber, Salt Lake and Davis counties, using a completely
illegitimate justification, have thus far diverted nearly a
quarter of a million dollars of forfeited proceeds into their
own accounts rather than to the education fund, as required
under the initiative.
Represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for
Justice, Utahans for Property Protection along with a group of
Utah citizens today filed a "notice of claim" with Utah
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, demanding that he take
immediate action against the district attorneys to end their
unlawful behavior and to secure the return of the funds that
should have gone to public education and to the victims of
crime. If the attorney general does not act, Utah citizens
will go to court to hold public officials accountable for
their illegal actions.
"We intend to expose the legal chicanery of these district
attorneys and law enforcement officials, to hold them fully
accountable for blatantly ignoring the will of Utah citizens
and to slam shut any remaining incentive to forfeit property
for profit," said Andy Stavros, one of the primary drafters of
Initiative B and co-counsel of Utahns for Property Protection,
the advocacy group that sponsored the initiative and that
joins in this action.
"General Shurtleff’s response to the district attorneys’
unlawful behavior has been timid and toothless, which is not
surprising considering that he is the leading opponent of
Initiative B," said Bullock. Bullock noted that General
Shurtleff adamantly opposed Initiative B during his campaign
and then led a legislative campaign beginning in 2002 to undo
Initiative B. Senator John Valentine originally sponsored
legislation to again direct forfeited proceeds to law
enforcement agencies. But Valentine was forced to withdraw his
sponsorship after an angry constituent uprising in his
district and county. Shurtleff has pledged to continue his
effort to alter Initiative B in the legislature during its
In January 2003, Utah State Auditor Auston G. Johnson found
that law enforcement agencies in Weber, Salt Lake and Davis
counties withheld at least $237,000 in forfeited revenue for
their own use rather than depositing the funds in the Uniform
School Trust Fund as required by the initiative. As the
auditor bluntly stated, "It’s the law [referring to Initiative
B], and they are disregarding it."
In the wake of the auditor’s report and the district
attorneys’ flagrant disregard of the law, General Shurtleff
wrote a letter stating that he, too, believed the prosecutors
were wrong in their interpretation of the law. He had little
choice to do otherwise as the prosecutors’ argument border on
the frivolous. Shurtleff also filed papers in three current
forfeiture cases stating it was the position of his office
that Initiative B should be followed in those particular
cases. However, he has taken no steps to demand that the
previously diverted forfeiture proceeds be turned over to the
education fund or to enjoin the district attorneys from any
further diversions of forfeiture funds to their own accounts
beyond those three cases. This gives rise to the need for
"Initiative B was sponsored by citizens, and now citizens
must come to its defense against public officials who refuse
to abide by it," said Bullock. "This litigation by Utah
citizens will ensure that all law enforcement officials in the
state follow the initiative overwhelmingly passed by the
voters," Bullock concluded.
Maxwell A. Miller of Parsons Behle & Latimer in Salt Lake
City serves as the Institute local counsel for this case.
Through strategic litigation, communications, training and
outreach, the Institute for Justice advances a rule of law
under which individuals can control their own destinies as
free and responsible members of society. We litigate to secure
economic liberty, school choice, private property rights,
freedom of speech and other vital individual liberties, and to
restore constitutional limits on the power of government.
Through these activities we challenge the ideology of the
welfare state and illustrate and extend the benefits of
freedom to those whose full enjoyment of liberty is denied by
government. The Institute was founded in 1991 by William H.
Mellor and Clint Bolick.
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