District, Silver Summit The Honorable Kara Pettit No.
C. Bradshaw, Ann M. Taliaferro, Salt Lake City, for appellant
D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Mark
E. Burns, Asst. Att'y Gen., Stanford E. Purser, Deputy
Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellees
R. Pomeroy, Lehi, for amicus curiae Libertas Institute
W. Huber, Adam S. Elggren, Salt Lake City, for amicus curiae
United States of America
Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court, in which
Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice
Pearce, and Judge Davis joined.
recused herself, Justice Petersen does not participate
herein; District Court Judge Lynn W. Davis sat.
The Utah Highway Patrol and Utah Department of Public Safety
(collectively UHP) seized nearly $500, 000 from Kyle Savely
under the Forfeiture and Disposition of Property Act (Act).
Over the next seventy-five days, the money sat in a UHP bank
account and no forfeiture proceedings were filed in a Utah
state district court. During this time, a federal magistrate
issued a seizure warrant for the money on behalf of the Drug
Enforcement Agency (DEA). UHP sent a check for the cash
amount to the DEA, but it was never cashed. Mr. Savely wants
his money back.
To that end, Mr. Savely filed a petition in state district
court, asking the court to force UHP to return his funds
because prosecuting attorneys failed to take one of the
actions necessary under Utah Code section 24-4-104(1)(a) to
avert a duty on the part of law enforcement to "return
[the] seized property." Initially agreeing with Mr.
Savely, the state district court ordered UHP to return Mr.
Savely's seized funds. However, after UHP filed a motion
to reconsider, the state district court reversed course,
concluding that it lacked in rem jurisdiction of the
seized funds based on principles of comity, and dismissed Mr.
Mr. Savely appealed this decision. We conclude that the state
district court had in rem jurisdiction over Mr.
Savely's funds under the Act. Therefore, we reverse the
state district court's dismissal of Mr. Savely's
On November 27, 2016, a UHP trooper stopped Mr. Savely while
Mr. Savely was driving on Interstate 80 through Summit
County, Utah. In response to his K-9's alert, the trooper
detained the vehicle's occupants and searched the
vehicle. The trooper uncovered no drugs or other contraband
but found a case containing 52 bundles of cash.
The trooper seized the cash and provided Mr. Savely with an
asset seizure notification form, providing him notice,
pursuant to section 24-4-103(1) of the Act, that the cash had
been seized for purposes of forfeiture. The cash was
deposited into a UHP bank account for seized currency.
No further action was taken in regard to the seized cash
until January 13, 2017, when a federal magistrate issued a
seizure warrant for the cash. UHP sent a check in the amount
of the seized cash to the DEA on January 24, 2017, but the
check was never cashed or deposited.
On February 10, 2017, seventy-five days after UHP's
seizure, Mr. Savely filed a petition in state district court
seeking the release of his property. In a hearing on February
21, 2017, the state district court ruled in favor of Mr.
Savely, concluding that UHP was required by the Act to
procure an order from a state district court that authorized
UHP to release the seized cash to the DEA and, thus, that UHP
had unlawfully transferred the funds. Additionally, the state
district court concluded that UHP had failed to take one of
the actions required by Utah Code section 24-4-104(1)(a) and
therefore ordered UHP to return the funds to Mr. Savely.
UHP immediately stopped payment on the January 24, 2017 check
sent to the DEA. In response, the DEA served UHP with a
second federal seizure warrant on February 23, 2017, after
which UHP requested that the state district court reconsider
its initial ruling.
The state district court heard additional arguments in
response to UHP's motion to reconsider and set aside the
original judgment. This time, the state district court
concluded the federal court had begun exercising in
rem jurisdiction by issuing the January 13, 2017 seizure
warrant, prohibiting the state district court's exercise
of in rem jurisdiction when Mr. Savely filed his
petition. As a result, the state district court granted the
motions, dismissing Mr. Savely's petition for lack of
Mr. Savely appeals that decision. We have jurisdiction
pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).
We review questions of jurisdiction for correctness.
State v. Finlayson, 2004 UT 10, ¶ 5, 84 P.3d
1193. Questions of statutory interpretation are also reviewed
for correctness without deference to the lower court's
opinion. Bank of Am. v. Adamson, 2017 UT 2, ¶
7, 391 P.3d 196.
After concluding that the federal court had exercised in
rem jurisdiction over the seized property before any
filing in a state court, the state district court dismissed
Mr. Savely's petition for lack of jurisdiction. The state
district court determined that this result was compelled by
Penn General Casualty Co. v. Pennsylvania, 294 U.S.
189 (1935). When two suits are proceeding in rem or
quasiin rem over the same res,
"the jurisdiction of one court must of necessity yield
to that of the other." Penn Gen., 294 U.S. at
195. In order "[t]o avoid unseemly and disastrous
conflicts in the administration of our dual judicial system,
and to protect the judicial processes of the court first