Utah lawmen and prosecutors are, by and large, obeying the law when they seize a suspected criminal's car or cash, the state's legislative auditor general says.

But while Utahns' civil and individual property rights are not being violated, several local law enforcement agencies are not handling their forfeitures well. And lax handling of the assets is giving critics of the process ammunition, a study of the state's asset forfeiture law by Legislative Auditor General Wayne Welsh's office shows.The report likely won't silence a growing number of critics -- many of whom cite constitutionally protected rights of disposal of property -- who say law officers use the law to take cars and other assets from law-abiding citizens innocently caught up in a criminal case or take the property of suspected criminals before they are convicted in a court of law.

In saying the law is not overtly abused, Welsh did find some agencies -- who can benefit financially from seizing cars and cash from suspected criminals -- need to follow guidelines more carefully.

In fiscal 1999, $729,000 was seized across the state, Welsh noted.

Horror stories abound over property seizures. And Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, who has been a staunch defender of constitutional rights on a number of issues, has worked on an asset forfeiture bill for several years without success.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that it is not "double jeopardy" for a person's property to be seized at the same time he is charged in a criminal action.

Welsh says many claims by opponents of the current law are greatly exaggerated.

But there are concerns, mostly dealing with how property was handled after it was seized, not whether it was legally seized in the first place.

For example, Welsh said, some law enforcement agencies charge a vehicle impound fee after a court has denied a forfeiture request on the car.

And while Welsh's auditors could ultimately account for all the property seized in the 65 reviewed cases, they noted that officials in one law enforcement agency (not named in the public report) had spent some of the cash they seized before it was legally forfeited to them.

Welsh recommends that each county attorney in the state appoint one deputy attorney to oversee all of the county's forfeiture work.

Also, that no law enforcement officers should be allowed to buy property that their agency seized.

Finally, all seized property must securely be stored, and contraband (like drugs) and hazardous materials should quickly be destroyed if they aren't needed as evidence.

State law says that before a court can forfeiture property to a law enforcement agency, the agency must prove that it really needs the asset. That requirement is rarely followed, Welsh said.

To stop huge amounts of forfeiture assets building up, Welsh recommends that some kind of cap be placed on the assets, some time frame imposed in which the money must be spent.

Lastly, since some law agencies haven't managed their forfeitures well once they got a hold of them, Welsh says some outside group -- such as the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice -- should be given the power to oversee the whole process.