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Majority approves initiative limiting property seizure

But police declare vote will hamper their war on drugs

SHARE Majority approves initiative limiting property seizure

In a move supporters said will protect personal property rights, voters passed Initiative B by an overwhelming majority — a decision Utah police departments say will handcuff them in the war on drugs.

Voters passed the initiative Tuesday to amend the state's laws on handling assets seized by law enforcement by a margin of almost 30 percent, according to final but unofficial results. More than 414,000 Utahns, 69 percent, voted for it and 190,750, 32 percent, against.

"That's a huge number, I'm thrilled," said attorney Janet Jenson, lead spokesperson for Utahns for Property Protection (UPP), the group that put the initiative on the ballot. "I didn't think you could get 70 percent of people to agree on vanilla ice cream."

Still, she is not surprised.

"I thought the issue was pretty simple and I think people understand that they deserve to have their property protected," said Jenson.

Under the new law, which takes effect March 31, 2001, forfeiture laws will be rewritten to increase protections for third-party individuals whose property is used in committing a crime and then seized by police. All seized property will be turned over to the state treasurer's office and property owners will get state-paid attorneys to represent them in their fight to recover the property. Proceeds of seized property sales will go into the Uniform School Fund.

UPP believes the initiative was needed because police were not required to report seizure income. Increases in the number of seizure cases and a state audit that showed some mishandling of property and cash were signs that law enforcement could abuse the process, UPP said.

Tuesday's vote is a blow to police departments, which use forfeiture funds to augment budgets, primarily to fight drug crimes. In response to the initiative, police and prosecutors from across the state organized the Coalition to Stop Drug Dealer Profits. But law enforcement could only raise $14,000 for its campaign, compared to the UPP's more than $550,000 in out-of-state money from international financier George Soros.

The coalition will likely not take Tuesday's defeat lying down, Salt Lake County District Attorney Dave Yocom said. The state stands to lose millions of dollars to fight drug crimes, he said.

"Obviously we're going to re-think this and decide whether or not to work to get (the initiative) repealed during the next legislative session," he said. "We're more than willing to discuss legislative changes; in fact, we supported a compromise proposal that last two times."

Jenson hopes lawmakers won't be intimidated.

"I hope the Legislature will understand that 70 percent of the people wouldn't want that, " she said. "Voters are not stupid. They read the ballot language and understood . . . . I think law enforcement doesn't give the voters enough credit."


E-MAIL: dobner@desnews.com