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Jay Evensen: Should police be allowed to take your property without proving you committed a crime?

Thanks to the brave actions of the McKeowns the robber made it into police custody.
Criminal in handcuffs arrested for crimes.

SALT LAKE CITY — On a chilly, overcast late-November day two years ago, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper stopped Kyle Savely, who had been driving I-80 in Summit County in a car with out-of-state license plates.

What happened next has raised questions about whether people in Utah truly are considered innocent until proven guilty.

The trooper entered Savely’s information into a database and learned he was under investigation by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. According to court records, the trooper then brought in a drug-sniffing dog that indicated it had found something. A thorough search followed.

But the trooper found nothing illegal in the car — no drugs, contraband or anything else that might be considered stolen or otherwise ill gotten.

He did, however, find $500,000 in a bag — 52 neat bundles of cold, hard cash. He took that money, and Savely has yet to get it back.

Chances are you have watched enough crime shows on TV to know that neat piles of cash are associated with guilt. But this is real life, and even with a DEA investigation underway, Savely ought to be treated as innocent unless proven otherwise. There is no law against carrying a lot of cash.

He was pulled over for allegedly following another car too closely, but even that charge didn’t stick. Nothing. Nada. No conviction. No charges. No jail time.

And still, no money back.

Why was Savely carrying all that cash? A Deseret News story said his attorney won’t say, and Savely isn’t doing media interviews.

The UHP turned the money over to the federal government, although the feds never cashed the check.

Last week, the Utah Supreme Court issued a ruling that puts Savely one step closer to recovering the cash. It ruled unanimously that state courts, not the feds, have power over the money. Before all the appeals, a state district court originally had ruled the UHP should return the money, which means it’s likely Savely will get all those bills back eventually.

If you have lived in Utah long enough, you may have thought you put this issue to rest in the voting booth way back in 2000. That’s when 69 percent of voters passed Initiative B, which provided greater protections for people whose property is seized by police because of its alleged involvement in crime.

No longer could police departments simply keep the money and property they seized. Today, what the state collects is given to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which gives it out in grants to various agencies.

The idea was to remove any incentive to abuse the law.

But if a federal law enforcement agency demands the money, it gives 80 percent of it back to the state or local police agency that confiscated it.

Civil libertarians, like Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, think this is a big incentive that once again gives local police a reason to go on fishing expeditions, pulling over out-of-state cars in search of something illegal.

Law enforcement officials strongly deny this.

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed a bill making it harder to keep property valued at less than $10,000. But that didn’t do Savely much good.

Let’s get one thing clear: the overwhelming majority of property police seize in connection with crimes deserves to be confiscated. Criminals would love to be able to keep stolen goods, even if they have to do some time. A state report found that in 87 percent of confiscation cases last year, criminal charges were filed, and in 58 percent, a conviction was obtained.

But, of course, that means 13 percent of the cases didn’t involve any charges and 42 percent involved people who, under the law at least, are innocent.

Utah collected $2.2 million in cash and another $400,000 or so in property in 2017, and the feds remitted $1.1 million in confiscated funds to state agencies.

Americans have long struggled to gain a sure foothold on the thin line that separates the need to keep the peace from the need to protect individual rights from abuses. It’s a struggle that helps define us and the things we value most.

In this case, it wouldn’t take much to make the line a little easier to grasp. State lawmakers should require an eventual conviction in order to keep property. They should require any federal money returned to a state agency to be collected and distributed the same as state confiscations.

I don’t know why Savely was carrying all that cash. But unless someone can prove it was related to a crime, I also don’t know why he shouldn’t keep it.