The Utah Attorney General’s office believes a recently passed law gutting protections for property owners facing government asset forfeiture gives the government a political weapon against attorneys advocating for reform.
HB 384 caps the amount that an attorney may obtain if an attorney prevails in a forfeiture action. Previously, the statute allowed prosecutors who litigated forfeiture cases on behalf of the State to obtain attorney’s fees in an amount up to 20% of the amount forfeited. Now this same cap also applies to a claimant’s attorney. By setting a limit on attorney’s fees it will take away the incentive for attorneys who actively promote the legalization of drugs in the state of Utah from soliciting clients who are engaged in criminal activity. A cap on attorney’s fees will encourage litigants to resolve cases in the best interests of their clients rather than in the best interests of the attorneys.
In other words, the state of Utah now believes it has a political weapon in the asset forfeiture system. Keep in mind the intent here is not just to reduce “crime,” but to prevent people from obtaining an attorney who may speak politically on their behalf. This is a stunningly authoritarian tactic: to not just deprive a person of their right to trial, but to also squash their ability to find an advocate who may speak for them.
Under civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can seize property on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. And unlike most governmental revenues, law enforcement keeps the proceeds of forfeiture, creating police a financial incentive to seize property. This is a system that allows the government immense power over a person; when it becomes a mechanism to stifle dissent, that power risks becoming totalitarian.
This is a power that no democratic society can or should bear. Perhaps this revelatory statement from Utah will help spark awareness amongst drug policy reformers that civil forfeiture is a law that poses an existential threat to free speech, the most important weapon in the reformer’s toolkit.