Tribune editorial: Drug money isn’t worth forfeiting our principles

(Doug Eldredge | Fox 13) The Utah Attorney General and several police agencies executed seven search warrants on pawnshops owned by the polygamous Kingston Clan on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. No one was arrested.

It’s only drug money.

Somehow, the defenders of asset forfeiture — in which law enforcement seizes people’s cash and property before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime – have to resort to that justification. There really isn’t another explanation for why servants of the people would be allowed to circumvent due process.

To be sure, it usually is drug money. Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice issues annual reports on civil asset forfeitures in the state. This year’s report said $2.5 million — mostly cash — was seized in 2017, and 96 percent of it was related to drug investigations.

The key word is investigations. Of the 334 cases involving forfeitures last year, 58 percent resulted in convictions, and another 22 percent are still working their way through the courts. But others may not even result in charges, let alone convictions.

And in what seems like an obvious conflict of interest, the state gives the seized money to law enforcement to spend. Funds are pooled into an account from which the state issues grants to police agencies for training, equipment and overtime.

There is a legal process for returning assets, but that takes money. In some cases, it’s that very seizure of assets that prevents people from hiring competent legal counsel to prove they committed no crime and didn’t deserve to lose their money.

No less than the Bill of Rights addresses the impropriety. Here’s the Fourth Amendment:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This is a state and federal problem, and as is often the case when an issue cuts to the constitutional core, there is bipartisan support for reform. Utah Sen. Mike Lee last November joined two other Republicans, two Democrats and one independent in requesting that funding be cut from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ effort to step up asset forfeitures.

Sessions is still stuck in the failed war on drugs. Yes, pulling funds out of the drug black market is disruptive, but it’s hardly an effective deterrent. As always, the true solution is to reduce the demand side through treatment and training so the suppliers lose their market. Much of law enforcement understands this, but old habits have been hard to break.

Yes, it’s only drug money, and it’s not worth compromising our constitutional principles to grab it.