Morality plays teach us crime doesn’t pay. You may wonder about that if you’ve ever visited John Dillinger’s grave in Indianapolis, where visitors regularly drop coins on his marker.
If you become popular enough in folklore, or if you can afford the right attorneys, morality plays are mere fairy tales.
For Dillinger, the irony is that he no longer can do anything with the money, which goes back to the original point.
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Among the living in Utah, however, a debate is stirring on Capitol Hill over the delicate balance between making sure crime doesn’t pay and also making sure innocent people who unwittingly find themselves around criminals don’t pay, either.
Or, at least, that they can get their money back some day.
Two competing bills are wending their way through the Legislature, one in the House and one in the Senate, modifying the rules around something known as asset forfeiture.
For years, police have had the right to seize the personal property and cash of people they believe have committed crimes, usually drug offenses. It’s hard to get that stuff back, even if you’re innocent.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, sponsor of the Senate version, explains the sometimes-sticky situations that ensue with this hypothetical:
“Let’s say that you give your grandson money to pay the rent. On the way he stops and buys a joint. Police arrest him, and they believe he’s selling drugs, so they seize not just the money he used in the transaction but the $400 rent money, too.”
This sort of thing happens. By the time you hire an attorney and go through court proceedings to get your money back, you’ve spent a lot more than $400, so chances are you’ll just spend more time looking through your sofa cushions for more rent money and forget about the rest.
Thatcher’s bill would require law enforcement to notify owners of the property or cash about their rights and tell them how to get their stuff back without hiring a lawyer. If they can show the money was theirs and the prosecutor decides he wants to prove they are lying in court, his office could be liable for all of court costs and attorney fees in the end.
Also, government couldn’t keep your stuff unless prosecutors file criminal charges in the case within a certain time limit.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian Greene, is much the same, except it also requires the property seized to have been present at the time of the crime. Police wouldn’t be able to seize a home, car or bank account of someone they arrest, unless those things all were directly a part of the crime committed.
Police groups and prosecutors support the version from the Senate, not the House. At a committee hearing on the House bill, law enforcement representatives railed about drug cartels in the Salt Lake Valley that collect enough cash they don’t worry what the law might do.
This issue goes to the heart of freedom and liberty. People don’t want to see criminals get rich, but they also shouldn’t want to see police hang onto personal property when no one goes to jail.
A report released last summer found Utah police agencies had seized nearly $1.9 million in assets in recent years. The money did not go directly to policing agencies. It went to the state, but the state distributed the money for a variety of policing programs and needs.
An Associated Press story about the report said 86 percent of the assets seized were cash. Cars made up 12 percent and firearms only 1 percent. Of 393 cases in 2015, only 51 got cash back.
The Institute for Justice issued a report last year giving Utah a C when it comes to being transparent and accountable with these assets. That sounds bad, but Vermont’s B+ was the highest grade given.
Civil libertarians say these laws are unconstitutional. No one’s assets should be seized unless they are convicted of a crime.
Utah isn’t the only state struggling with this concept. Other than criminals, few people want crime to pay. But life is unfair. Freedom’s morality tale includes the grudging reality that protecting rights is more important than exacting total justice.