8/31/2018Utah Supreme Court Sides With Motorist Who Had Cash Seized
Utah Supreme Court rejects gimmick police used to seize cash from motorist who was never charged with any crime.
A unanimous Utah Supreme Court last week defended a voter-passed initiative designed to stop state law enforcement agencies from seizing property from motorists not convicted of any crime. Those agencies have been circumventing the ballot measure by asking federal officers to grab the money. The high court weighed in, declaring this practice unlawful.
As a result, Kyle Savely will get back the $500,000 that was taken from him on November 27, 2016. The Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) pulled Savely over on Interstate 80 in Summit County allegedly because he followed someone too closely. While he was stopped, a drug dog alerted on Savely's car, even though there were no drugs in it. The officers used that as an excuse to help themselves the cash that Savely was carrying in a Nautica bag. The man was then sent on his way, never charged with a crime.
Utah's Initiative B, which passed with 69 percent of the vote in 2000, clearly states that seized money must be returned within 75 days if no charges are filed. The highway patrol bypassed that requirement by tipping off the Drug Enforcement Administration which had a federal judge issue an order to take the money. UHP sent the DEA a check for $500,000.
Savely filed suit to get his money back. After he won in a state court, UHP immediately stopped payment on the January 24, 2017 check sent to the DEA. The federal agency responded with another federal seizure warrant, and the Utah court backed off. It should not have done so, the high court justices explained, because the state court maintained jurisdiction over the cash (in rem jurisdiction) under the voter-passed citizen's initiative that restricted police seizure. The court noted that both sides in this case made equally plausible interpretations of the initiative law.
"The act itself is not a model of clarity when it comes to the jurisdiction of state district courts," Justice Constandinos Himonas wrote. "The act never explicitly states when seized property becomes property held for forfeiture."
The court looked to the purpose of the initiative law, which was to protect property owners by restricting the state's seizure powers, to decide which legal theory to endorse.
"Therefore, we resolve the ambiguity in the act by determining that it imbues in rem jurisdiction over property held for forfeiture in the district court, even when forfeiture proceedings have not been filed in the court," Justice Himonas wrote for the court. "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."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.