Asset Forfeiture

During a traffic stop on the roadways in Utah, a law enforcement officer might seize cash or other property. The seizure then triggers an asset forfeiture action, meaning the government seeks to gain ownership of the property. Many of these forfeitures are conducted in violation of the constitutional rights of the motorists.

In asset forfeiture cases in Utah, these aggressive law enforcement tactics must be fought by an aggressive lawyer.

The attorneys at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat, LLP, in Salt Lake City, Utah, fight to get the money back—often without the owner ever returning to Utah if they are out of state. In some cases, courts have ordered the money to be returned with interest and an award of attorneys' fees. We have successfully forced the government to return property in both federal and state courts.

In Utah, law enforcement officers use the civil forfeiture system to seize property belonging to its citizens. Under the asset forfeiture laws in Utah, the government does not have to charge you with a crime in order to take your property.

The most common scenario is a motorist traveling through Utah being pulled over for no reason or at best a purported minor traffic offense such as speeding or not using a turn signal. The trooper will then use the alleged traffic violation as the means to conduct a full-scale investigation into every aspect of you, your vehicle, and your travel.

Using intimidation, drug dogs, and the threat of prosecution, the officers will seize your property and try to scare you into just walking away. You, however, have rights that can be asserted.

Attorneys for Asset Forfeiture in Salt Lake City, UT

The criminal defense attorneys at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat represent clients throughout Utah after a law enforcement officer takes their property and keeps the property under Utah's asset forfeiture laws or the corresponding federal versions of these statutes.

If your property was seized, act quickly. If you miss a filing deadline, you could lose your chance to get back the property that was taken from you.

Even if you are not charged with a crime, you need an attorney with experience in forfeiture cases. Our attorneys for asset forfeiture defense will provide you with a free, strictly confidential initial consultation. All information is protected by attorney-client privilege. You can learn your rights without any risk.

We have substantial experience representing clients involved in these cases, and we know what your rights are and how to aggressively defend them. We handle many cases on a contingency fee basis. This means you pay only at the time the property is recovered.

Call (801) 532-5297 to get started on your case today.

Overview of Asset Forfeiture in Utah

  • Common Types of Traffic Stops
  • Limits on Transferring Property to a Federal Agency or Governmental Entity
  • Protections for Innocent Owners of Seized Property in Utah
  • Proportionality - Amount of the Forfeiture Compared to Gravity of the Offense
  • Utah's Law for Notice of Asset Forfeiture 
  • Caps on Attorney Fees in Forfeiture Actions
  • History of Utah's Asset Forfeiture Laws
  • Real Results in Real Asset Forfeiture Cases
  • Additional Resources

Common Types of Traffic Stops

In many cases, an officer with a drug task force will pull over suspicious looking vehicles, bring in drug dogs, and then seize any cash they find during a search. The officers might ask the person to sign over the cash to the police or threaten to arrest the person for a crime and impound their vehicle.

Although forfeiture is often justified as a way to strip big-time drug traffickers of assets, in practice, officers typically take small amounts of cash and vehicles. Most people never contest the forfeiture. As a result, officers benefit from illegal asset forfeitures involving innocent people.

In Utah, prosecutors can keep property tied up for months. And unless the property or cash is worth more than $10,000, many people have a hard time finding an attorney willing to fight for the return of the property when the attorney's fees are expected to exceed the value of the property seized.

The incentive for “policing for profit” often leads to corruption and unjust forfeitures involving the taking of property from innocent owners. The attorneys at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat, LLP understand how to counteract these corrupt practices and fight for a return of the property or assets seized.

Limits on Transferring Property to a Federal Agency or Governmental Entity

In Utah, law enforcement agencies have entered into the Justice Department’s “equitable sharing” program. In this program, when a law enforcement officer comes across assets that could be seized, the local law enforcement officers call in federal law enforcement officers with the DEA or AFT.

Those federal officers play a cursory role in the investigation but their involvement makes the case a federal case controlled by federal law. The federal laws give the federal government 20% of the asset off the top and the rest is returned to the local law enforcement agency.

Utah's Section 24-2-105 (3) provides that seizing law enforcement agencies or prosecuting attorneys may not transfer property for forfeiture to any federal agency or governmental entity unless:

  1. the property is cash AND the property is evidence in, or subject to, a federal criminal process

  2. the property is not cash AND the property is evidence in, or subject to, a federal criminal process that has been filed before the day the agency with the property is required to return the property

  3. the property was used in the commission of an offense in another state AND an agency of that state requests the transfer of the property before the agency with the property is required to return the property

  4. a district court authorizes the transfer or release of the property to an agency of another state or a federal agency upon a petition by a prosecuting attorney or a federal prosecutor.

Protections for Innocent Owners of Seized Property in Utah

The protections for innocent owners include language which indicates that property used to facilitate criminal activity may only be forfeited if it is proportional.

Under Section 24-1-102, the term "innocent owner" is defined as a claimant who:

  1. held an ownership interest in the property at the time the conduct occurred, and:
  1. did not have actual knowledge of the conduct OR
  2. upon learning of the conduct, took reasonable steps to prohibit the illegal use of the property
  1. acquired an ownership interest in the property and had no knowledge that the illegal conduct had occurred or that the property had been seized for forfeiture, and:
  1. acquired the property in a bona fide transaction for value OR
  2. was a person, including a minor child, who acquired an interest in the property through probate or inheritance OR
  3. was a spouse who acquired an interest in the property through the dissolution of marriage or by operation of law

Proportionality - Amount of the Forfeiture Compared to Gravity of the Offense

The eighth amendment of The Constitution states that “excessive fines'' shall not be imposed. In forfeiture cases, the amount of the forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish.

As stated in a case from 1998 (United States v. Bajakajian), “If the amount of the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the defendant's offense, it is unconstitutional.”

According to Utah code, the courts decide all questions of proportionality. This includes determining things such as

  • the offense subjecting the property to forfeiture
  • what portion of the forfeiture, if any, is remedial in nature
  • the gravity of the conduct for which the claimant is responsible in light of the offense
  • the value of the property

Utah's Law for Notice of Asset Forfeiture

According to Utah law, “if an agency seeks to forfeit property seized . . . the agency shall serve a notice of intent to seek forfeiture to any known claimant within 30 days after the day on which the property is seized.”

Notice of the forfeiture is sent by certified mail or personal service to the address that is provided by the individual from whom property is seized. 

Under Utah law, an agency must conduct a search of public records applicable to the seized property before serving a notice of intent to forfeit seized property. This includes county records, DMV records, or other state and federal licensing agencies. 

Caps on Attorney Fees in Forfeiture Actions

Under Utah law, the courts award “reasonable legal costs and attorney fees to a prevailing claimant. If a court awards legal costs and attorney fees to a prevailing claimant, the award may not exceed 50% of the value of the seized property.”

Additionally, if a claimant prevails only partially, they are entitled to recover costs and fees only according to the part in which they prevailed. 

An experienced attorney can help you understand the ways to minimize the attorney fees that you must pay while still having effective representation during every stage of the forfeiture proceeding.

History of Utah's Asset Forfeiture Laws

Asset forfeiture laws rely on a legal fiction that property can be guilty of a crime. Asset forfeiture provisions date back to English Common Law. The goal of asset forfeiture laws was to prevent criminals from benefiting from illegal activities and ill-gotten gains. Historically, asset forfeiture required a conviction for a criminal offense and was limited to the taking of property directly obtained through the commission of the crime.

As the war on drugs began in the 1980s, law enforcement officers started to rely on civil asset forfeiture provisions. For civil asset forfeiture, the government began to seize property merely by insinuating it was associated with a crime.

The law then required the property owner to prove that he earned the property legitimately. For most people, especially those acting without an attorney, it can be very difficult to meet that burden. Judges make the process time consuming and expensive. An attorney can help you level the playing field so that you can obtain justice in your particular case.

Today, the civil asset forfeiture provisions used in Utah allow the police and prosecutors to take the property without the need to ever charge the property owner with a crime.

To make matters worse, the proceeds from the seizures go back to the law enforcement officers who engaged in the taking and sometimes to the prosecutor's office. The federal government started using the civil asset procedures in the 1980s, and many states followed quickly behind.

Real Results in Real Asset Forfeiture Cases

United States v. Justin Peck
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. The friend of an uncharged landowner was found guilty for running an illegal factoring business. The property that was ultimately forfeited as a result of the crime belonged to the uncharged friend. 

When the government filed a motion to carry out the forfeiture, they failed to tell the court that title was in the name of the uncharged friend. Not knowing the actual facts, the court accepted the forfeiture motion.

James C. Bradshaw of Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat represented the uncharged friend, and in the end, the judge ruled that because the land never belonged to the criminal defendant, the government could no longer hold it. The previous forfeiture order was vacated.

State v. $171,800.00
Filed in the Third District Court of Salt Lake County, Utah. An out-of-state driver was stopped by the Utah Highway Patrol on I-80. Law enforcement located cash after the drug-sniffing dog allegedly "hit" on the trunk. After litigation, Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat was able to get the Third District Court to order the return of all money taken, along with interest, and with an award of attorneys fees. 

U.S. v. $303,581.82
Currency was seized from a Wells Fargo bank account owned by a business. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. Through litigation, the legal team of Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat got the Court to order the return of all funds to the business. 

State v. One 1998 Acura
Filed in the Third District Court of Salt Lake County, Utah. An out-of-state driver was stopped by the Utah Highway Patrol on I-80. Cash was located after the drug-sniffing dog allegedly "hit" on the vehicle. Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat fought against the charges and the court ordered the car to be returned to the out-of-state motorist.

Additional Resources

Utah's Forfeiture and Disposition of Property Act - Learn more about asset forfeiture from the general provisions of Title 24 of the Forfeiture and Disposition of Property Act, especially Chapter 4.


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