Facebook Twitter



In an important victory in the war against illegal drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that even if assets of alleged drug dealers are seized, the defendants can still be charged with crimes. The decision has a direct bearing on many Utah cases.

The court's ruling centered on an appeal from Michigan, but the Utah attorney general's office was so concerned about the outcome that it filed a brief in the matter. According to Utah officials, the Supreme Court reasoning closely resembled the Utah arguments.The Supreme Court obviously intends the ruling to apply in all jurisdictions, not just the 6th Circuit, where Michigan is located. The justices wrote they were consolidating two similar cases for review, and added, "These civil forfeitures - and civil forfeitures generally - we hold, do not constitute `punishment' for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause."

That clause says a person may not be put in jeopardy for criminal prosecution more than once for the same crime. It was the argument used by a lawyer for Wallace Davis, a juvenile probation officer whose truck was seized when he was charged with possession of cocaine found in the vehicle.

The Utah Court of Appeals agreed that if the truck were confiscated and Davis were also charged with a crime, that would be double jeopardy, prohibited by the Constitution. That decision in September 1995 threw into jeopardy millions of dollars in confiscations.

No longer would criminals dealing drugs out of their homes face the loss of their houses. No more would trucks be seized if they were found to contain millions of dollars worth of heroin.

Also, confiscations are carried out not only in drug cases, said Assistant Attorney General Todd Utzinger, but "firearms cases, people smuggling other illegal material into the country like furs, perhaps, or rare minerals - that kind of thing." Under the Utah Appeals Court ruling, all such civil forfeitures would be illegal.

However, the highest court of the land has now reinstated the rule.

The Davis case is still pending. It was sent to the Utah Supreme Court to review and put on hold awaiting the national Supreme Court ruling.

"We feel good about our participation in this case, and about the outcome," Utzinger said. "This is an issue, frankly, that Jan Graham took under her wing because it's so important to law enforcement."

Graham commented, "We've been on pins and needles waiting for this one. We are very happy and think this is a real step forward in terms of us being able to do our job."

The whole argument about double-jeopardy in such cases, she charged, "is really just a defense lawyer's trick, another way to get a guilty criminal off the hook for a concededly criminal act."

With guidance from the high court, "we feel we will be able to put this law back on the books, the way it's supposed to be," Graham said.