RAWLINS – A committee of Wyoming lawmakers wants to overhaul Wyoming’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which currently allow police to take money, weapons, vehicles or other property they believe are linked to crime even if owners aren't charged with any crime.
On Tuesday, members of the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee ordered their nonpartisan legislative staff to draft two bills that aim to protect people whose property is seized by police as forfeited goods. The issue has come to the fore since a New Yorker article illustrated abuse in other states, with cops seizing assets to subsidize their departments. No one at Tuesday’s meeting said the laws were abused in Wyoming.
But there is potential for abuse, said Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group, who is critical of the law because forfeiture proceedings happen in civil courts, where defendants don’t have the right an attorney if they can’t afford one.
The first bill the committee wants drafted would eliminate civil asset forfeiture in Wyoming and replace it with criminal asset forfeiture, which would let police forfeit seized property only if the owner is convicted of a crime. Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, sponsored a criminal forfeiture bill in the Wyoming Legislature in February, but he pulled it while it was being debated because it was confusing everyone, he said. Currently, the only agency allowed to do criminal forfeiture is the state Game and Fish Department.
The second bill would keep civil asset forfeiture but would limit when police could seize property. Currently, police can seize property when it appears it's linked to crime. But committee members want a higher standard of suspicion, such as “clear and convincing evidence” the property is linked to crime, the words used in a bill sponsored in February by Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evanston, which died in the Legislature.
“Our justice system is based on the premise of someone being innocent until proven guilty,” Kroeker said.
Additionally, the second bill would restrict the money police agencies can take from an asset forfeiture to total only a reimbursement for their work on the forfeiture. The remaining money would go to a Wyoming Attorney General’s Office account. The bill would also require the Attorney General’s Office show what happens to the money in the account.
Such an account exists now, but lawmakers didn’t get any answers about how much is in it and how that money is spent. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office and the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation who were teleconferenced into the meeting said they didn’t have that data and they misunderstood they were supposed to provide it Tuesday. Gingery said that one of the reasons Kroeker’s bill was defeated this year is because the law enforcement and prosecution community wanted to provide lawmakers more information, but “then I think they forgot,” he said.
Carbon County Attorney Cal Rerucha and Crook County Attorney Joseph Baron said they don’t want the law to change.
“You take away the benefits of being a criminal,” Baron said, referring to money or weapons that are seized.
If, for example, police in Moorcroft come across property they believe is tied to drug crime, they can call in the state or federal government to take care of the forfeiture. They do not have to worry about money or property seized and can focus on the investigation and prosecution of the alleged criminal.
“No cop grabs the money and sticks it in the safe,” Rerucha said.
The legislative staff will provide drafts of the bills at the next Judiciary meeting on July 17-18 in Newcastle. The committee will consider whether it wants to sponsor the bills in the 2015 legislative session.