When you are approached by police officers or charged with a crime, the first thing you are certainly going to focus on is your own safety and liberty. However, it is also important to think about what might occur to any property of yours that is seized by the officers during your arrest or even a situation that does not lead to an arrest. Through a process known as civil asset forfeiture, police in Utah are sometimes permitted to keep your possessions even if you are never charged with or convicted of a related crime. In this article, our experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense attorneys at Overson Law, PLLC will explain how and when you have the right to get back your property that the police have seized, and how we can help you fight back against unjust seizures.
Civil Asset Forfeiture by Police in Utah
Civil asset forfeiture is a complex area of the law that has come under a lot of fire throughout the country in recent years. Under Utah’s civil asset forfeiture laws, the police are able to seize anything that they believe may have been used as part of a crime. For example, if your brother borrows your car and is pulled over with a large amount of money inside the vehicle, the police can seize both the money and your vehicle if they believe it was being used for drug crimes, like selling or buying drugs. This can occur even if your brother is never charged with a crime.
A civil forfeiture case is actually a case against the asset itself, rather than against an individual. The case takes place in civil court entirely separately from any criminal case that may or may not occur. Unlike in criminal court, where the standard for conviction is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor in a civil forfeiture action is only required to prove that the assets were involved in a crime by clear and convincing evidence. This lower standard of proof makes it easier for assets to be seized even when no one is convicted of the underlying crime. The police are further incentivized in the use of this practice because any civilly forfeited assets can be sold, and the profits go straight to the police department who seized them.
When Will the Utah Police Return My Items?
How long the police can hold on to your property depends on the nature of your case and the property that was seized. The police are not in the habit of quickly returning seized property, especially if that property is suspected of being used in the commission of a crime. How long the police hold on to your property might also depend on whether or not you have been charged with a crime or are an innocent party.
It is possible for the police to hold your property for as long as the underlying crime remains unresolved. Investigations and trials can drag on for months or years at a time. In such cases, the police will hold your property indefinitely. Even after the trial is over, the police may still be reluctant to return your property. For especially serious or high-profile cases, the police may decide to hold all property and evidence permanently. The case could be reopened or questioned at some point in the future and the police like to keep all the evidence just in case.
One way to get your property back is to demonstrate to a court that the police no longer need it as evidence. Perhaps your property was seized in the early stages of an investigation, but now law enforcement has other more significant evidence, and they no longer have a need for your property. If the court agrees with you, it can order the police to return your property. However, while courts require the return of your property as soon as possible, there may not be a specific time frame. This means if the police have more important things to worry about than your seized property, you might not get it back for a while.
What Kind of Property is Subject to Civil Forfeiture in Utah?
According to Utah law, almost anything can be seized by the police. Under § 24-4-102 of the Utah Code, property that has been used to commit a crime along with any proceeds gained from that crime may be subject to civil forfeiture. This may include things as big as real property, like your home, and anything affixed or attached to the property. Smaller items may also be seized, such as items of personal property and cash. Intangible property can also be seized. This may include rights, privileges, or claims. This might apply to things like a person’s right to enter certain real property or their right to access a bank account.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms in Utah
In recent years Utah has enacted a series of reforms to protect innocent people from having their property seized under civil forfeiture laws. In particular, the law now strives to prevent situations like the one in the example above, where someone not even thought to be involved in criminal activity can have their assets, such as a vehicle, taken from them permanently because someone else may have used it in the commission of a crime.
Civil asset forfeiture laws are complex and the best thing you can do to work to get your property returned is to retain an experienced South Salt Lake criminal defense attorney like those on the team at Overson Law, PLLC. Our lawyers will aggressively fight against any unjust seizure of your assets, especially without a criminal conviction backing it up.
How Long Will Police Hold My Property Taken During the Booking Process in Utah?
As a standard part of the booking process after you are arrested and taken into custody, the police in Utah will take all of the items you have on your person, such as a wallet or purse, inventory them, and hold on to them for safekeeping until you are released. Typically, these items should be returned to you once you are let out of police custody. However, the police are permitted to hold on to these items if there is reason to believe that they may be needed to use in a future court case as evidence of a crime. The police are also not required to return anything that it was illegal to posses in the first place. For example, if you have a baggie of cocaine on you when you are arrested, you are not going to get that back whether or not you are convicted of a crime.
Sometimes the police will try to keep non-evidentiary items taken from you during booking without any justification. An experienced Salt Lake City search and seizure attorney like those at Overson Law, PLLC will know how to work with the police to get your possessions back and to file a motion with the court for their return if the police refuse to cooperate.
How Long Will My Property Be Held as Evidence in Utah?
Unfortunately, if the police have reason to believe one of your possessions either is evidence of a crime or contains such evidence, they are permitted to keep that item in their custody for as long as it takes for the underlying criminal case to be resolved. This means that there is no real limit to the time Utah police can hold evidence. If the case drags on for years, the police will be able to keep your possessions for all of that time.
Our attorneys may be able to fight to get your items released to you by arguing to the court that the police no longer need them to prove their case. For example, if you were caught driving drunk in your car, your attorney can argue that there is no need for the police to keep the actual car for the entirety of your case when the evidence is based on breath and blood tests and not the vehicle itself. However, the best way to ensure the return of your property is to hire a West Valley criminal defense lawyer to fight your case and prove that you are innocent.
How Long Can Police Hold My Property If I Did Not Know It Was Used in a Crime in Utah?
If you were unaware that your property was involved in someone else’s criminal activity before it was seized, you are what is referred to as an “innocent owner.” An innocent owner is someone who did not know of the criminal activity that resulted in the property being seized, or if they did know, they took steps to prevent their property from being used as part of a crime. An innocent owner may also be someone who acquired their interest or ownership of the property after it was seized without knowledge that the seizure had taken place or that the property was involved in criminal activity.
It is the responsibility of the prosecutor to prove that you were not an innocent owner. They must prove you were either responsible for the underlying crime, knew of the underlying offense and did nothing to stop it, or acquired the property with knowledge of the underlying crime. If you are an innocent owner, your property may not be forfeited. Our Utah criminal defense attorney can help you get back any property wrongfully seized by the police.
How Do I Get My Property Back from the Utah Police?
If the Utah police have seized your property as evidence of a crime, it is possible to petition the courts to have your property returned to you. Where you file your petition will depend on where the underlying criminal case is filed. Generally, you must file your petition with the court that is also hearing the underlying criminal case to which your property is connected. If there is no criminal case pending, you can file your petition with the district court of the jurisdiction where your property was seized.
Once your petition is filed, the court will have a hearing to determine if your property should be returned to you. To get your property back, you must demonstrate that you are the lawful owner and it is legal for you to possess the property. Illegal property which is not lawful to own, such as illicit drugs, will not be returned. The court may decide that your property is to be returned to you or that your property will be disposed of in some other way.
The court may determine that you should not have the property back, or there is some other use for it. A few possible outcomes are: a court might convert your property to public use, order your property to be sold off, or determine there are further legal actions that require the police to keep your property. If the court demands your property to be sold off or disposed of, it can also order how the proceeds are divided. The proceeds could be used to pay off any debts you owe the court, or it could go to a public interest fund.
Call Our Utah Criminal Defense Lawyers About Seized Possessions
While police have the power to hold evidence related to a pending criminal charge indefinitely, there are limits to their ability to hold your possessions when no underlying criminal charges have been filed against you. At Overson Law, PLLC, our Riverton City criminal defense lawyers have years of experience fighting against improper and illegal seizures of our clients’ property. We will work tirelessly to bring your matter to a successful conclusion and get your property back in your hands. Call our firm today at (801) 758-2287 for a free, confidential consultation.