Utah is a hotbed of police reform (Updated)

If you’ve been following the budding police reform movement in Utah, there’s some good news.

First, a search warrant reform bill has passed both houses of the Utah legislature and will now go to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. As I explained in this post, the bill isn’t quite as bold as was initially planned. Connor Boyack, the head of the state libertarian think tank Libertas Instistute who pushed for the bill, initially planned to limit forcible entry by police to only those situations in which a violent crime was being committed or was about to be committed. Still, the bill does put some restrictions on how “dynamic entry” tactics are used. It’s a step in the right direction.

Second, a transparency bill that would require all of the state’s police agencies with a SWAT team to report on how often and for what purpose those SWAT teams are used passed the Utah House unanimously, the Utah Senate by a vote of 22-2. That too will now go to Herbert for his signature. Currently, only Maryland has a similar bill in place.

Finally, Boyack’s group is also pushing a bill that would require a warrant before police could search the contents of a cell phone, including bulk collection through technologies like the “Stingray.”

For all of this good news, there was at least one step backward: The legislature also snuck through a bill that will make it easier for police agencies to seize property through asset forfeiture. But that may get revisited.

It can be difficult to implement new policies that put restrictions on law enforcement powers or that make police agencies more transparent. Politicians just don’t like to upset police groups, nor do they want to appear soft on crime. So what Boyack and his organization have done over the last year is really impressive.

UPDATE:  It’s actually much better even then this. Boyack writes to say that the legislature actually already overturned the bill to make forfeiture easier. And the bill requiring warrants for cell phone searches has also already passed. The latter passed unanimously. The former had only one vote opposed in both houses of the legislature.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · March 14