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Leavitt opposes property initiative

Shurtleff agrees, but backers say seizures can hurt the innocent

SHARE Leavitt opposes property initiative

Supporters of the proposal to restrict law enforcement's ability to seize property used in alleged crimes aren't surprised that Gov. Mike Leavitt and attorney general candidate Mark Shurtleff have come out against it.

But initiative proponent Janet Jenson has one question: "How can taking property from innocent people be something the government doesn't oppose?"

Leavitt and Shurtleff, both Republicans, weighed in on the issue Thursday at separate news conferences. Leavitt voiced his opposition during his monthly KUED broadcast, while Shurtleff spoke from the steps of the Matheson Courthouse.

The governor also voiced his opposition to Initiative A, the proposal to declare English as Utah's official language.

"I believe English is the official language of the state of Utah," he said, adding he firmly believes immigrants must learn it. "But I do not see it necessary for us to have a law. And I'm not seeing that as productive, and so I will personally vote against it."

Eric J. Stone, who heads a group called Utahns for a Common Language, said English isn't the state's official language as Leavitt stated.

"I just don't think he understands the issue that well," he said.

Stone doesn't think Leavitt's endorsement will carry much clout. "The governor has given his opinion but the people of Utah will give their opinion on Election Day," he said.

The proposed Utah Property Protection Act, which will appear on the November election ballot as Initiative B, would limit law enforcement's ability to confiscate assets taken from "innocent owners" in drug busts and other crimes. Supporters of the measure say there is widespread abuse of the practice, such as taking property from people who aren't convicted of crimes.

Leavitt said he opposes the initiative because "we'd change the cases and circumstances under which they could do it, and it would raise the bar so high that it would make it a practical impossibility."

The proposed law would put the state out of compliance with federal statutes, possibly costing the state up to $12 million, the governor said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Orton had previously taken positions against both initiatives.

Shurtleff, a Salt Lake County commissioner, said he has yet to see an authenticated case of local police inappropriately seizing property used to distribute drugs. He cited a state Legislative Auditor General report that discounts overly aggressive police tactics and abuses.

Jenson, an attorney who represents a bipartisan group of politicians and an out-of-state billionaire financial backer of the measure, figured Shurtleff would come down on police officers' side as has his Democratic opponent Reed Richards, chief deputy attorney general.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised that law enforcement would oppose this because they are keeping the money," she said.

As for Leavitt, Jenson said "it's basically a budget issue for him, and that's disappointing." It is untrue, she said, that Utah would be at odds with federal law or lose any money.

Jenson said the measure simply forbids government from taking assets from people unless they are convicted of a crime. And it takes away any incentive for police by redirecting the proceeds to administrative costs, victims' assistance and education, she said.

Sandy Police Chief Sam Dawson, who stood alongside Shurtleff Thursday, said city councils must approve any expenditure of seized assets. Furthermore, he said the state's DEA Metro Task Force put $1 million into cleaning up drug labs last year, using nearly all of the money it took in.

"We believe this is a craftily crafted and well-named initiative that seeks to deceive the public," he said.

Jenson said police killed two similar asset forfeiture reforms in the Legislature and are out to do it again.

"It's an easy issue for them to demonize and scare people," she said.