Wisconsin Legislature Considers Bill to Cut ‘Policing for Profit’

Published March 1, 2017

Wisconsin state Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) is sponsoring a bill that would restrict local and state government agencies’ ability to take citizens’ property without criminal convictions under a process called civil-asset forfeiture.

Senate Bill 61 would require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to obtain a criminal conviction before ownership of seized assets or property could be transferred to the government.

The bill would also increase the confidence level at which government agencies may seize property. It would require the government to demonstrate the owner’s “clear and convincing” knowledge of the crime connected to the seizure, instead of the current requirement to demonstrate a mere “preponderance of the evidence.”

Enforcers, Not Judges

Craig says police should be enforcing laws, not deciding people’s guilt.

“Only a judge and jury should be deciding on the facts of a case,” Craig said. “When we allow law enforcement to essentially determine guilt by leveling a stiff penalty prior to a conviction—and often without charges even being filed—we expand police powers beyond what the Constitution allows and skirt due-process rights of the individual. If we simply change the law to allow forfeiture only after a conviction, we ensure that only guilty people who have had their day in court are subject to forfeitures.”

Restoring Constitutional Requirement  

The bill would also restore a constitutional directive governing how forfeiture funds must be used.

“Currently, in Wisconsin’s state constitution, there is a clause which states that all proceeds from forfeitures must go to the state school fund,” Craig said. “In the 1980s, during the ‘War on Drugs,’ there was a statutory change, which allowed for up to 50 percent of the proceeds to be used to cover the administration of the program. We are simply reasserting and re-codifying the state’s constitution.”

Injustice on the Streets

Chris Rochester, communications director at the MacIver Institute for Public Policy, says civil-asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction violates the public’s sense of morality and justice.

“Most Americans would be gobsmacked to find out that law enforcement can seize and sell your property even if you’re not guilty,” Rochester said. “The case for this reform is spelled out in black and white in the Fifth Amendment. Anyone who values the Constitution should be able to back this commonsense reform.”