RIVERTON – The Wyoming Legislature may consider softening some elements of its civil asset forfeiture laws after Gov. Matt Mead vetoed a bill that would have changed them completely.
Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael said Wednesday he could accept if lawmakers passed a bill, for example, that would increase the amount of evidence needed before allowing a seizure. Lawmakers could also make it easier for property to be returned to so-called innocent third parties such as spouses who need the family car or banks that own the titles to seized property.
Civil asset forfeiture laws allow police and prosecutors to take personal property they believe is connected to drug crimes. The laws are controversial because owners don't have to be charged or convicted of drug crimes to lose their possessions.
Lawmakers passed a bill in March that would allow forfeiture only when the owner was convicted of a felony. But Gov. Matt Mead, a former federal prosecutor, vetoed Senate File 14, saying the current laws are an effective way to fight drugs.
The topic is back on the drawing board after lawmakers said they still wanted reform, and Mead said he was willing to talk about the issue. After a discussion Wednesday, lawmakers on the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee ordered their nonpartisan staff to draft two bills for 2016.
"It’s a great discussion we should be having," Michael told members of the committee at Central Wyoming College.
Critics say the laws could be abused to enrich police departments with cash and vehicles taken from innocent people, and some people can't pay to fight back. Defenders say civil asset forfeiture is necessary to stem narcotics crime, since the financial incentive can be lost in a seizure.
Currently, police and prosecutors can seize property based on a low amount of evidence, a standard in the courts known as a “preponderance of evidence.” Michael said the amount could be increased to “clear and convincing.”
“What if we go all the way to the criminal standard, which is 'beyond a reasonable doubt?’” he said. “I think that’s where you get into some difficulties.”
The asset forfeiture law has not been abused, said Tony Young, Mead’s deputy chief of staff.
“By and large, we are very proud of the record that law enforcement has done and continues to do in respect to forfeiture," he said, "particularly when you see the nightmares that have occurred elsewhere.”
On average, counties receive about $5,000 a year in seized assets, Michael said. Wyoming police departments don't use the money to pay officer salaries, as agencies do in other states.
But Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group, which supports civil asset forfeiture reform, said the system is flawed.
His organization reviewed Wyoming Attorney General cases from 2008 to 2013. Fewer than 20 percent of property owners had legal counsel to fight asset forfeiture. Forty percent of the cases involved marijuana and not hard drugs, he said.
Authorities would have to seize about $5,000 in money or property before it’s worth hiring an attorney in civil court. If an owner prevails, most of money would go to attorney fees, he said.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, asked the Legislative Service Office to draft bills that would consider a handful of issues, including requiring a judge to consider forfeiture within 10 days after property is seized and a public defender or state assistance money for low-income people to fight for their possessions.
The vetoed bill was the result of an interim study last year sponsored by the Judiciary Committee. Some elements of the bill should stay, Christensen said.
The U.S. Constitution states no person shall be deprived of property without due process, but Wyoming’s law doesn’t grant that, said Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville.
“That to me seems like a no-brainer there,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said current civil asset forfeiture is constitutional, Michael said.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, is concerned about what he called proportionality – whether people pulled over and found having the remnants of a joint in their ashtrays or paraphernalia could be subjected to having their vehicle seized. That’s different than a major criminal enterprise, he said.
Young, Mead's deputy chief of staff, said proportionality makes sense.
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock.