Utah Sen. Mike Lee has joined libertarian and civil rights advocates in opposing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to expand the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program, which seizes billions of dollars from suspects, even if they are never charged with a crime.
President Barack Obama’s administration, concerned about possible abuses and civil rights violations, restricted the program in 2015.
Now President Donald Trump’s team wants to go back to the good old days.
Lee called the program a “constitutionally suspect” practice.
Here are three examples I have written about in the past that should raise worries about motives sometimes displayed by police and prosecutors seizing such money and explain why I agree with Lee on this subject:
• In 1989, Emery County sheriff’s deputies confiscated $108,890 from a Michigan man after they pulled over his employee and found the money stashed in a fake gas tank. The officers suspected it was drug money, but the man said it was from the sale of a business he had in California.
Nobody was ever charged, but, for the next few years, Emery County and the U.S. attorney’s office wrangled over who would get to keep the money — the feds or the county.
The Utah Supreme Court eventually ruled the seizure was illegal because there was no proof it was drug money and ordered it returned to its owner, who then couldn’t be found.
The man’s defense attorney, who later was elected Emery County attorney, sought $10,889 in attorney fees for himself, but the money’s owner couldn’t be located so it was placed in a trust fund. Then, just before he was sworn into office in 1993, the county attorney forged his client’s name on a “power of attorney” document and backdated it to 1989 so he could get his money.
He later pleaded guilty to forgery in federal court and was sentenced to probation.
• When a yearlong undercover investigation led to the arrest and conviction of a physician for illegally giving opiate prescriptions to drug addicts for a fee, two agencies fought over who would get the doctor’s ill-gotten gains.
The sting was conducted by an undercover task force led by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Two of the main investigators were Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputies assigned to Cottonwood Heights.
Cottonwood Heights later broke away from the Sheriff’s Office and formed its own police department, which those two investigators joined.
So when the Sheriff’s Office applied for some of the seized money, Cottonwood Heights put in its own claim, arguing its officers were the ones who did the job.
Both local agencies were stifled, however, when the U.S. attorney’s office deemed the forfeited assets should go as restitution to the doctor’s victims.
• In September 2000, a Salt Lake County sheriff’s sergeant pulled over a Mexican national and searched him. He confiscated $2,340 from the man’s wallet, saying the bills smelled like marijuana.
The sergeant didn’t arrest him. He just took the money and let him go. The officer did not give the man a receipt for the cash, but he did give him his business card.
The man heard nothing back, so he got a lawyer, who called the sergeant about the immigrant’s money several weeks later. He believed the officer was being evasive so he filed a complaint with the internal affairs division of the Sheriff’s Office.
Four days after the complaint was filed, the man finally received a receipt, and the attorney was told the money had been kept in a container until a drug-sniffing dog could inspect it.
The Sheriff’s Office then filed an official seizure claim in 3rd District Court — a full two months after the sergeant confiscated the money.
A sheriff’s representative told me at the time that the sergeant was reprimanded for not giving the man a receipt, but otherwise, he acted properly.
After months of haggling — and no charges ever being filed — the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office agreed to split the money with the man, who used it to return to Mexico.
The Utah Supreme Court has since ruled that money cannot be seized solely on the basis of its smell.