Does the government really even need excuses to seize the assets of its citizens, especially for relatively minor crimes? Apparently it does, at least according to the state of Utah.

A new law that went into effect on Jan. 1 changes the wording and adds provisions to a law that has been in effect since 2008 allowing officers to impound a vehicle that isn’t insured. The crucial verb that was changed, raising sides between those in favor and those opposed to the revised law, is the shift from the law previously stating that an officer “may” seize a vehicle without warrant if it’s being operated without insurance to the fact that now an officer “shall” seize said vehicle.

The wording change makes it mandatory. What was always an option is now expressly a command. The senator behind the new law feels this is necessary despite uninsured drivers really not being much of a problem in his home state.

Even though the sponsor of SB 72, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, estimates Utah’s current rate of uninsured drivers at 3 percent, much less than the national average of 12.6 percent, he says it’s still enough of a problem to address.

No problem is too small. That’s your government at work, Utah citizens. Will this new law lead to the sort of abuse witnessed in other areas of the country? Well, maybe. The low uninsured driver rate is one of the few things preventing this from becoming the full-blown, corrupt mess it is in other jurisdictions. The other factor is the restrictive language in the law, which provides for a surprising amount of protections for the public.

Officers are supposed to make a “reasonable, independent effort” to verify the vehicle is uninsured before seizing it. This means they can’t simply seize it because the driver isn’t carrying an insurance card. The claimed insurance company will need to be contacted before the vehicle can be seized, along with the owner of the vehicle (if said owner isn’t the one driving). The amendment also authorizes an account for funds to be set aside to repay towing and storage charges incurred for vehicles wrongly impounded. (Of course, this requires the affected person to prove that the vehicle was wrongly impounded, but hey, at least there’s some sort of due process, even if it occurs after the vehicle has already been seized.)

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it gives law enforcement yet another way to take property away from citizens. It encourages trolling for seizures by turning the Uninsured Motorist database into a shopping list.

Then there’s this. What if the driver’s insurance agent isn’t available at the time of the incident?

Another commenter unhappy with the new law said how she had been pulled over previously and had shown up as being uninsured. Because it was Saturday, the officer couldn’t reach her insurance agent but was kind enough to let her go with a warning. By the new wording in the law, unless there is reason to believe the woman’s safety is in question, the officer “shall seize” her vehicle.

There’s still no due process involved (pre-seizure) and vehicles are automatically deemed to be “guilty” of being driven without insurance. As far as criminal acts go, driving without insurance is on the low end of the spectrum, but the consequences are on par with drug trafficking or fraud.

Sure, every driver should have insurance, but this isn’t a perfect world. There are very few good reasons why someone might drive without insurance, but the real world sometimes gets in the way. Payments might be missed and the reinstatement amount might be too high to pay in a lump sum. Some people are simply uninsurable due to their driving record — or even solely because of their credit record.

This law seems about as close to abuse-proof as any asset forfeiture law, but it still has several problems, not the least of which is the demand that vehicles be seized (rather than left to officer discretion) and the reliance on law enforcement to carry through on “reasonable, independent verification.” The nod to the “safety” of those whose vehicles can be seized ultimately means nothing. Past incidents have shown officers are more than willing to seize vehicles and leave drivers stranded on the side of the road. “Public safety” is generally invoked to assist in civil liberties violations — like skirting warrant requirements or seizing recording devices — not to actually ensure the “public” is any “safer.”

As with any law that authorizes the seizure of property by the government, there’s a potential for abuse. For a state with such a low uninsured driver rate, this law is overkill.

UPDATE: Eric Holder recently announced decision to eliminate states’ participation in asset forfeiture programs is a move forward — one that closes a loophole used by law enforcement agencies to bypass states’ restrictions on seizures. However, it will have no effect on this program as this doesn’t involve federal participation. So, there’s still significant room for abuse in many states’ programs, ones that will need to be closed at the local level.

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