Wisconsin Enacts Sweeping Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Published June 11, 2018

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill  protecting residents’ constitutional rights to property and due process.

Senate Bill 61 (S.B. 61), sponsored by state Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon), sets new requirements for law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in using civil asset forfeiture to take ownership of individuals’ seized assets or property.

In most cases, police or prosecutors now must obtain a criminal conviction before property held by individuals accused of committing a crime can be forfeited. The law went into effect on April 5.

Cops, Not Robbers

Lindsey Stroud, state government relations manager for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says many law enforcement agencies have routinely abused the civil asset forfeiture process.

 “It’s a problem because, in a lot of these states, if you’re an innocent person, your property can be taken away from you,” Stroud said. “A lot of these laws allow the law enforcement agencies to retain what they take, so it kind of creates an incentive for them.”

Restoring Principles of Justice

Craig says the bill he introduced, now known as Act 211, restores the presumption of innocence in this area of Wisconsin law and clarifies due process.

“Senate Bill 61 requires a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture of property with some limited exceptions, preserving the fundamental notion that one is innocent until proven guilty,” Craig said. “Additionally, the legislation requires that forfeiture be proportional to the offence, that innocent owners are protected, forfeiture actions are properly reported and transparent, and divests the monetary incentives for departments to pursue forfeitures.”

Stroud says civil asset forfeiture can harm innocent individuals in unforeseen ways.

“In one case, a woman went to bail her son out,” Stroud said. “They took a drug-sniffing dog, sniffed her money, and they seized it. Studies show that 90 percent of bills have traces of drugs on them. She was eventually able to prove she got the money legally”.

‘Glaring Violation’ of Constitution

Craig says lawmakers at every level should work to stop constitutional abuses at the hands of the government.

“Frankly, civil asset forfeiture affects every American,” Craig said. “The mere fact that Wisconsin law allowed private property to be forfeited to the government without conviction was a glaring violation of the Constitution. So long as a practice grossly violates the Constitution and can be used against anyone, that is a mandate that elected officials sworn to uphold the Constitution must remedy.”

Public Responsibility

Craig says the public must be vigilant in fighting for liberty and freedom.

“All citizens should care when their liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are threatened by an overzealous government,” Craig said. “These abusive policies could someday be used against you, despite no wrongdoing on your part.”