Wyoming’s civil asset forfeiture laws give law enforcement agencies significant financial incentives to seize people’s property. Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil judicial forfeiture, is a controversial legal process by which law enforcement agencies take personal assets from individuals or groups suspected of a crime or illegal activity. The standards of proof allowing seizure differ from state to state.
The Institute for Justice argues Wyoming’s civil forfeiture laws are particularly bad because they allow the government to seize and keep property merely by establishing probable cause to suspect the property was connected to a crime. This is the lowest possible standard, far less stringent than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard used in criminal cases. Property owners attempting to reclaim their property bear the burden of proof and are essentially considered guilty until proven innocent. While criticizing the state’s forfeiture laws, IJ approves of Wyoming’s limitations on the use of equitable sharing, an agreement in which state and federal agencies split the proceeds of forfeiture using a broader, federal-government evidence standard.
Early in 2015, Wyoming’s legislature passed an asset forfeiture reform bill requiring an actual conviction before seizure. Gov. Matt Mead (R) vetoed the bill, arguing the civil forfeiture laws were not being abused.
Two proposals, both of which would improve on the current system, are being debated. The first proposal would increase the standard for civil forfeiture from the preponderance of evidence standard to more stringent standards requiring “clear and convincing evidence.” It would also give the property owner the right to a jury trial to fight the asset seizure. Finally, the bill calls for procedures under which the court can analyze the seizure and determine what assets can be seized, based on the severity of the crime.
The second, more stringent, proposal would require a criminal conviction for asset seizure. Property owners in a forfeiture case would be allowed both a trial by jury and the right to legal representation. Law enforcement officials would be able to seize property only if they can prove a crime occurred.
Proponents of forfeiture say it allows law enforcement agencies to use seized assets toward enforcement efforts, transforming property illicitly gained by criminals into resources usable for public benefit. Critics of the process note it gives law enforcement economic incentives to seize property, corrupting law enforcement agencies and penalizing innocent property owners. Many states impose no penalties on law enforcement personnel for wrongful seizures, and when property is deemed to have been taken illegally, taxpayers usually have to pay for restitution.
Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group told the Billings Gazette the organization’s review of cases from 2008 to 2013 found fewer than 20 percent of property owners had legal counsel to fight the seizure of their assets. They also found law enforcement would have to seize about $5,000 in money or property to make hiring an attorney worth the cost.
Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, advocates eliminating forfeiture altogether except in cases of maritime and customs law. He also offers five recommendations for states not willing to halt all forfeitures: place seized revenues in neutral funds, increase the standard of proof for seizure to require “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, make the tracking of seized assets more transparent, and eliminate “equitable sharing” arrangements.
Wyoming lawmakers should strongly consider these reforms. They should work to ensure assets are seized only for legal reasons and to remove the incentive for law enforcement to seize any more property than necessary.
The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.
After Veto, Wyoming Considers Milder Asset Forfeiture Reform
Scott Shackford of Reason.com examines the new wave of Wyoming asset forfeiture reform proposals that would require an actual conviction before law enforcement officials could take and keep citizens’ belongings.
Wyoming Judiciary Committee to Consider Two Asset Forfeiture Proposals
Steve Klein, an attorney with the Pillar of Law Institute, a program of the Wyoming Liberty Group, examines the two primary draft bills that would amend civil asset forfeiture under the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the Department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas-Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” confirmed by their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation suggests media attention to the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses may lead to real reform.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.
Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
This report from the Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Budget & Tax News at http://news.heartland.org/fiscal, The Heartland Institute’s website at http://heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.
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