A win for at least one resident — and victim of shady forfeiture practices — has been handed down by Utah’s top court. Kyle Savely had $500,000 taken from him by Utah law enforcement during a traffic stop. No charges were filed and Savely was never arrested, but a dog told the Utah Highway Patrol it could search the vehicle and seize the cash, even though the search failed to produce any drugs. (h/t The Newspaper)
An early forfeiture reform initiative, voted into law by Utah residents in 2000, says the government must return forfeited property if no criminal charges are filed within 75 days. The Utah Highway Patrol apparently had no charges to file, but rather than return the money when Savely requested it back, it chose to hand it over to the DEA via equitable sharing. Equitable sharing with the feds allows state agencies to bypass more restrictive state laws and help themselves to 80% of whatever’s seized.
The DEA pitched in, too, hoping for 20% of the seized cash, further demonstrating the perverse incentives of the federal forfeiture loophole. From the decision [PDF]:
On February 10, 2017, seventy-five days after UHP’s seizure, Mr. Savely filed a petition in state district court seeking the release of his property. In a hearing on February 21, 2017, the state district court ruled in favor of Mr. Savely, concluding that UHP was required by the Act to procure an order from a state district court that authorized UHP to release the seized cash to the DEA and, thus, that UHP had unlawfully transferred the funds. Additionally, the state district court concluded that UHP had failed to take one of the actions required by Utah Code section 24-4-104(1)(a) and therefore ordered UHP to return the funds to Mr. Savely.
UHP immediately stopped payment on the January 24, 2017 check sent to the DEA. In response, the DEA served UHP with a second federal seizure warrant on February 23, 2017, after which UHP requested that the state district court reconsider its initial ruling.
Savely challenged this move, claiming the state had jurisdiction over the seized cash and could not use equitable sharing to route around state law. The court agrees for the most part, but notes the initiative isn’t the “model of clarity” and the government can present plausible arguments for federal jurisdiction over the cash, even with the lack of required charges at state level.
That being said, the court sides with Savely. It points to one clause of the law, along with its intent — “to protect property owners” during forfeiture proceedings — as evidence the state government (and its residents) were seeking to close the federal loophole that would have erased the protections it had enacted.
Importantly, the transfer provision expressly prohibits a district court from “authoriz[ing] the transfer of property to the federal government if the transfer would circumvent the protections of the Utah Constitution or of this chapter that would otherwise be available to the property owner.” UTAH CODE § 24-4-114(1)(d). This provision, along with the grant of in rem jurisdiction to the state district court over property held for forfeiture, ensures that the authority to seize and hold property for forfeiture under the Act is limited by the protections provided in the Act. This comports with the legislative intent and purpose of the Act.
The court concludes the state has jurisdiction over the seized cash, despite the DEA’s belated involvement. As such, the cash must be returned to Savely because the state government failed to bring charges in 75 days.
A state district court has in rem jurisdiction over any property held for forfeiture under the Act. And property becomes property held for forfeiture, at the very least, when a seizing agency serves a notice of intent to seek forfeiture under the Act. Because Mr. Savely was provided with a notice of intent to seek forfeiture long before any federal seizure warrant was issued, we conclude that the state district court was the first to properly exercise in rem jurisdiction to the exclusion of any other court. Therefore, we reverse the state district court’s conclusion that it lacked in rem jurisdiction and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
“Consistent with this opinion” adds up this way: 1 seizure + 0 criminal charges = $500,000 returned to Savely. The intent of the state law is clear: protecting citizens whose property has been seized by the government. If the government can’t find a reason to criminally charge the property’s owner, the property has to be returned. Asking the feds to take over circumvents state protections.
Local law enforcement knows this. The law’s effect was very noticeable. As Radley Balko notes in his post about Utah’s back-and-forth forfeiture reform efforts, the elimination of federal forfeiture adoption hit local agencies right in the pocketbook.
The year before it passed in FY 2000, Utah received $226,524 from the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF). In FY 2002, that number plunged to $3,357. The very next year, it was $0.
Since then, things have been loosened up a bit by legislators, but the 2000 initiative still prevails 18 years later. Local cops can’t use the federal government to launder forfeitures in exchange for a 20% cut. If the state seizes the property, it still has to bring criminal charges if it hopes to keep it. That’s the way it should be. Fortunately, the unclear law is being interpreted by the state’s highest court as a bulwark against government abuse. Closing the federal loophole and requiring criminal charges fulfills the intent of the law and makes it far less likely forfeiture programs will be abused.