Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has vetoed a bill aimed at reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.
In a letter explaining his veto, Mead defended the state’s asset forfeiture laws, writing “asset forfeiture has a number of benefits” for government and law enforcement agencies.
In the mid-February letter, Mead said seizing citizens’ private property without a conviction in court or strong evidence of criminal activity “is important and it is right.”
If signed into law, Senate Enrolled Act 1 would have amended the state’s Controlled Substances Act of 1971 to require a felony conviction before law enforcement agencies could seize private property believed to be connected to illegal drug activity.
‘Very Poor Protection’ of Rights
Wyoming Liberty Group Research Counsel Steve Klein says the state’s seizure laws carry a high risk of abuse by government authorities.
“Wyoming’s Controlled Substances Act has, like so many other states’, very poor protection of property rights and due process,” he said. “What that means is, using the drug law, police in Wyoming can seize property that they suspect is related to the drug trade. The property is then forfeited.
“The forfeiture process is [handled] in civil court; that’s why it’s called ‘civil forfeiture,’ he explained. “What it basically means is a property owner is not provided an attorney if he or she cannot afford one, and is in the position of proving—by a preponderance of the evidence, a fifty-fifty split—that the property is legitimate. It’s not the government’s job to prove the property is ‘guilty’; you have to prove that it’s legitimate.”
Stacking the Deck
Challenging asset forfeiture in Wyoming is sometimes beyond individuals’ financial means, and potential legal fees often exceed the value of the property taken, says Klein.
“A study of Wyoming’s civil forfeiture cases, from 2008 to the present, conducted by the Wyoming Liberty Group last fall, revealed that the median seizure is right around $2,000,” he said. “If it gets all the way to court, it’s going to cost you, in a typical case, more money in legal fees to get your property back than the actual value of the property.
“This isn’t a question of abusing a law, it’s a question of an abusive law,” Klein added. “The deck is so stacked in favor of the government.… That’s the reason reform is necessary.
‘Property Rights Are Critical‘
State Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), the leader of the bicameral committee responsible for drafting the bill, says Enrolled Act 1 would have brought needed reforms to Wyoming.
“I think individual property rights are critical,” he said.
Christensen says civil asset forfeiture should be made more difficult, to protect citizens’ right to private property.
“I think any time the government takes citizens’ property, there ought to be a pretty high standard,” he said. “There ought to be a pretty high threshold. The difference between the civil and criminal standard is when you have to clearly prove it to a jury or a court. That is very different than saying, ‘We believe you came by this money inappropriately, so we’re just going to keep it.”
“While it’s easy to look at someone you don’t know and say, ‘Well, if they’re a drug dealer—or if they may be a drug dealer—they don’t deserve that money. The laws we pass to apply to them, apply to us,” Christensen noted.
Jesse Hathaway ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.
“Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States,” Jefferson E. Holcomb, et al., http://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/civil-asset-forfeiture-equitable-sharing-and-policing-profit-united-states/