[The following was emailed to FEAR by Arnold Gaunt on May 10, 1999. Leon]
Property Forfeiture Audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor Prepared by: Arnold J. Gaunt May 9, 1999 Proposed Objectives 1. Compliance with State Law: Determine if property seizure and forfeiture practices are in compliance with the intent of state law. 2. Forfeiture Magnitude: Determine the recipients, quantity, type, and value of property forfeitures. 3. Circumvention of State Forfeiture Law: Determine the extent of state participation in federal asset sharing programs. 4. Avoidance of Legislative Bodies to Obtain Grant Matching Funding: Determine the quantity, type, and value of federal grants secured by forfeiture proceeds. 5. Dependency on Federal Forfeiture Funds: Determine the amount of money received from the US Department of Justice, Treasury, and Special Forfeiture Funds. 6. Disclosure and Accountability: Determine methods for control, allocation, and audit of forfeited property acquired by seizing agencies. 7. Abuse: Determine instances and extent of abuse of forfeiture powers. Background and Rationale for Audit Objectives Introduction: Property seizure and civil forfeiture are authorized under various sections of Utah Code. The sections include 23-20-1 (Fish and Wildlife), 32A-13-103 (Alcohol), 41-6-13.7 (Conveyances), 58-37-13 and its subchapters a, c, and d (Controlled Substances), 76-3-501 (Vehicles Used in Crimes in Which a Firearm is Involved), 76-10-1107 (Gambling), and 76-10-1908 (Financial Misconduct). Anecdotal and other evidence indicates the magnitude of forfeitures related to Controlled Substances exceeds the combination of all other areas. Accordingly, it is the area in which the greatest amount of public attention is placed and awareness of abuse exists. For that reason, reform legislation HB 127, Asset Forfeiture Amendments, was introduced in the 1999 Legislature. In assessing the fiscal consequences of HB 127, the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst encountered significant difficulty in determining the impacts of the proposed statutory changes. This difficulty led the sponsor of HB 127, Rep. Bill Wright, to request an audit of the Controlled Substances forfeiture code. Therefore, the following discussion is specific to 58-37-13, but is not necessarily limited to it because the other areas of code authorizing forfeiture generally employ comparable methodologies. 1. Compliance with State Law: The Legislature has specified that forfeited property shall be deposited in the custody of the Division of Finance (reference 58-37-13(8)). The Division of Finance is then empowered, upon application, to transfer the property to the seizing agency, or other applicants if the seizing agency doesn't apply. The prosecuting agency is reimbursed prior to the property transfer. When Rep. Wright checked with the director of the Division of Finance, he was informed that there had been no property placed in its custody for the last several years. Since it is virtually indisputable that forfeitures have occurred under 58-37-13 during this period, the question of statutory authority for an alternative disposition methodology is raised. In Weber County there is evidence that one particular seizing agency directly received and managed its own forfeited funds. An audit performed by the State Auditor (Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, Review of Fund Balance Calculation as of December 31, 1995, Report No. 96-632) indicates that from 1988 to 1993 the Strike Force maintained "program income" funds in a separate checking account solely under its control after receiving property and restitution payments from the court. 2. Forfeiture Magnitude: Since forfeited property is not deposited as mandated with the Division of Finance, the recipients, quantity, type, and value of property forfeitures under 58-37-13 cannot readily be determined. This makes evaluation of the effectiveness of forfeiture in reducing or deterring criminal activity difficult for legislators, though they are responsible for the enabling code. 3. Circumvention of State Forfeiture Law: Utah's municipal, county, multi-jurisdictional, and state agencies, and state/federal hybrid agencies, have the option of bypassing forfeiture proceedings in Utah's courts by transferring seized property to the US Justice or Treasury Departments for forfeiture under federal code. Under federal code, upon forfeiture of the property, the Attorney General may under an "equitable sharing" program return up to 80% of the proceeds to the seizing agency (see 21 USC 881(e)(1)(A), Guide to Equitable Sharing of Federally Forfeited Property for State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies (US Department of Justice), and Asset Forfeiture Law and Practice Manual (US Department of Justice). Since the return of the proceeds is discretionary, enormous power is wielded by the Attorney General over the potential state agency recipient. The practice of transferring seized property to the federal government, also known as federal adoption, is attractive to state agencies. Forfeiture can be accomplished under administrative, not judicial proceedings, provided that 1) the property is not real estate, 2) if it is in the "other property" category, value is less than $500,000, or 3) a claim and cost bond has not been filed. At one time 21 USC 881 prohibited federal adoption where doing so would deny protections that otherwise would be available under state law, but in 199X and amendment was made that removed this provision. Therefore, the federal adoption can be seen to allow or facilitate forfeiture that would otherwise be difficult or impermissible under Utah's laws and jurisprudence. Since under equitable sharing funding is obtained directly from the Attorney General's office, accountability to a state, county, or local legislative body is diminished or eliminated. The extent of equitable sharing is unknown, but a paper trail exists in concept. A request is made for an equitable share by the state agency submitting US DOJ Form DAG-71, Application for Transfer of Federally Forfeited Property. According to Appendix C of the Guide to Equitable Sharing, the agency is to maintain a log of all DAG-71s forwarded to the DOJ. In addition, the agency is to annually execute and submit a certification accounting for the equitable sharing funds received and expended. e of Legislative Bodies to Obtain Grant Matching Funding: One of the significant objections raised by the proponents of forfeiture was that HB 127, because of the prohibition it proposed to institute regarding equitable sharing with the federal government, would eliminate millions of dollars of federal grants to law enforcement agencies. The basis for this objection arises from the present ability of state agencies to provide the required 25% "match" needed to obtain federal grants using proceeds from the equitable sharing program (see Chapter 3, US DOJ Office of Justice Program's Financial Guide). By obtaining grants the state agency is able to leverage forfeiture proceeds coming from the federal government to triple their return. As is the case with the equitable sharing itself, the agency becomes dependent upon the federal government to obtain a grant that may be issued under subjective criteria and subject to various conditions, and accountability to the applicable legislative body may be diminished. 5. Dependency on Federal Forfeiture Funds: In addition to equitable sharing and grants, agencies may apply to the US Department of Justice and Treasury Funds (28 USC 524(c) and 31 USC 9703), controlled by the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury, respectively, for reimbursement of various expenses including overtime salaries, travel, training, equipment, and other expenses of a similar nature. As with the other methods of federal funding, disbursement to the state agency is discretionary, leading to the same potential problem of diminished control by the applicable legislative body. The method used to obtain and document reimbursement is unknown. 6. Disclosure and Accountability: The disclosure methods and accountability for seized and forfeited property are uncertain based on the non-compliance with the requirement to deposit forfeited property to the Division of Finance, as well as the various federal funding mechanisms which may operate outside the typical methods of financial control. Areas of potential concern include the ability to compare the returns associated with a seizure warrants with actual deposits of forfeited property, arrangement of "sweetheart" deals to dispose of forfeited property, compliance with the requirement to use forfeited property strictly for law enforcement purposes, management of seized assets to assure preservation of their value, and compliance with applicable constitutional provisions, statutes, and procedures. The integrity and efficacy of the use of seizure and forfeiture powers Utah's law enforcement officers requires independent review, legislative accountability, and full public disclosure. At this time there is evidence that in some measure these necessary components of public confidence and trust have been ignored or circumvented. 7. Abuse: Most proponents of forfeiture maintain that either there has never been an instance of abuse of forfeiture powers in Utah, or they are totally unaware of any. In their view, the law provides complete protection for the innocent property owner. However, various anecdotal evidence exists from court cases and news stories demonstrating significant harm to innocent persons by overzealous law enforcement officers and prosecutors. A collection of some of these occasions of abuse is summarized in the following table. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are unqualified by reason of a conflict of interest to determine the existence and extent of abuse, and therefore can not be expected to provide an unbiased response to this question.