Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) vetoed a bill reforming the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws and protecting citizens’ rights to due process, but lawmakers are trying again with a second bill to reform the process through which local and state law enforcement authorities may seize private assets and property believed to have been used for criminal activities.
State Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R-Evansville), who sits on the state’s Joint Judiciary Committee, says too little is done to protect citizens’ constitutional rights in Wyoming.
“The Fifth Amendment states, among other things, that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process,” Kroeker said. “I don’t see anything resembling due process when it comes to our forfeiture laws in Wyoming.”
Burden of Proof
Kroeker says reforms to Wyoming’s civil asset forfeiture laws are long overdue.
“All the state is required to show is that there is ‘an appearance’ of being tied to drugs for the state to win a forfeiture case,” Kroeker said. “That is really no standard at all.”
The game is rigged in favor of the government, Kroeker says.
“Around two-third of the cases are default judgments in favor of the state,” Kroeker said. “That means the individual had their property taken from them and forfeited to the state without even getting to appear in court.”
Kroeker says asset forfeiture after a criminal conviction strikes the proper balance between law enforcement agencies’ goals and individuals’ rights.
“I think the most critical area of reform is to require that someone is convicted of a crime before the state can forfeit their possessions,” Kroeker said. “That would respect the Fifth Amendment. It would allow someone to be [presumed] innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.”
Kroeker says crime shouldn’t be profitable, but neither should law enforcement.
“I think it is completely appropriate to say that crime shouldn’t pay, and therefore allow the state to [force people to] forfeit profits from illegal activity,” Kroeker said. “But the key is crime shouldn’t pay, so the state should have the burden of proof to convict someone of a crime first.”
Jeff Holcomb, an associate professor at Appalachian State University’s Department of Government and Justice Studies, says states should move toward a criminal asset forfeiture system.
“Personally, I believe that a criminal conviction should probably be a requirement for the government to forfeit individual assets, but that is obviously not a well-shared vision under most state laws,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb says lawmakers should pass reforms to protect citizens’ rights.
“States need to reconsider the standard of proof necessary to forfeit assets, who has the burden in innocent-owner claims, and make sure these provide adequate protection to property owners,” Holcomb said.
Matt Hurley ([email protected]) writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Eric L. Jensen and Jurg Gerber, “The Civil Forfeiture of Assets and the War on Drugs: Expanding Criminal Sanctions While Reducing Due Process Protections,” Crime & Delinquency: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/civil-forfeiture-assets-and-war-drugs-expanding-criminal-sanctions-while-reducing-d/
The photo “Day 362 – West Midlands Police – Seized cash” is copyright © 2011 West Midlands Police, and was made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. The image’s size was altered to fit the constraints of the article.