CHEYENNE – An attempt in the Wyoming Senate to override a veto on a civil asset forfeiture bill failed Friday morning.
A two-thirds majority vote was needed to override Gov. Matt Mead’s veto of Senate File 14. Only seven senators voted in favor of the override; 23 opposed it.
In Wyoming, police and prosecutors can seize money or property they believe is associated with crimes in a civil court process regardless of whether the owner is charged with a crime. Last year, Joint Judiciary Interim Committee crafted SF14, which would have required someone be convicted of a felony in a drug crime to have their assets seized. It passed the House and Senate with overwhelming and bipartisan support.
Gov. Matt Mead, a former federal prosecutor, vetoed the bill, saying that he believed the existing process was successful in stemming drug crime.
Lawmakers who opposed the action discussed the rarity of overriding a veto and whether they wanted to do it over a bill that could be brought back and made stronger.
“Is this the fight you really want to have?” Sen. Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne.
Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, warned his colleagues that the Wyoming Attorney General had commented that enacting the bill would remove an existing tool in the state's fight against the drug trade.
Bebout said he believes that the state's 23 elected county prosecutors will make the correct decisions on how to handle cases and are held accountable by the voters.
"If in fact, you can't determine who owns that money, therefore you'll not be able to get that conviction," Bebout said. "So should we take that money or not take that money?"
However, Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, said that the bill was backed by third-party owners, such as the banking industry, because it provides a process for banks to petition the court if there is an outstanding loan on the seized property.
“Senate File 14 is about property rights,” he said. “It’s about seizure of personal property.”
In a letter accompanying the veto last week, Mead said he doesn't believe Wyoming has seen abuses of its existing forfeiture law that would justify changing it.
On Friday in a statement, Mead said he respected the hard discussions the Legislature had on the issue.
"I believe improvements can and should be made to civil forfeiture.," he said. "The chairman of Judiciary, the committee and the Legislature as a whole recognized the need for improvement. I commit to work with the committee and the Legislature on this matter in the interim so we can come back next year with a bill that addresses concerns and leaves law enforcement with the necessary tools to do its work.”
"If he's interested in doing something, we ought to visit with him," said Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, co-chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, after the vote Friday.
The committee meets Monday to discuss topics to study in the interim, or time between this and next legislative sessions.
Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group, which advocated asset forfeiture reform, said he was disappointed by the vote.
“It was certainly surprising that a number of legislators who told me they were a 'yes' a week ago were a 'no,'" he said.
Klein said he'd prefer a bill like SF14 again.
“I think the facts are there: Going with a halfway measure just doesn’t work," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.