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Wyoming lawmakers may take another shot at offering some protections for innocent people's property

04/20/2015

The Wyoming Legislature, in February, passed, with overwhelming, bipartisan support, a strong bill that would have offered strong protections for innocent people whose property has been wrongfully seized by the government through the state's absolutely awful civil asset forfeiture laws. The bill would have required the government to win a criminal conviction before it could seize property believed to be used in crime.

Unfortunately, Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican and former US Attorney, vetoed the bill, claiming that Wyoming doesn't have a history of gross abuse of civil asset forfeiture. "I understand the debate. I agree with the scrutiny. Wyoming has passed the test," said Mead in his veto message. "We use the law as it was intended to be used. We should not solve a problem that does not exist or rearrange a law that works based on 'what ifs.'" The state Senate failed to override the veto.

Supporters of the bill, SF 14, disputed the narrative that Mead tried to advance. Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group said that Wyoming has "simply failed less than some other states,". Klein, an attorney for the liberty-minded organization, has criticized inadequate protections for innocent property owners in civil asset forfeiture cases, undermining the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process, and noted the potential for abuse.

But lawmakers may have another shot to pass some measure of civil asset forfeiture reform, though it won't be nearly as strong as what passed in the 2015 session. One potential reform being discussed by lawmakers is raising the standard of proof.

Currently, under Wyoming law, the government need only show "probable cause," a very low threshold of evidence, that property is connected to some sort of illicit activity and can be seized. But lawmakers could raise this standard to "clear and convincing evidence," a much higher standard of proof. The Legislature may also may weigh providing legal assistance to those whose property has been seized, as, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, "[f]ewer than 20 percent of property owners had legal counsel to fight asset forfeiture."

The reforms that are being floated may be a step in the right direction, but they won't be enough to fully restore due process. If law enforcement encounters someone who they believe is involved in criminal activity, they should build a case and prosecute that person.

Too many innocent people, in Wyoming and elsewhere, have been negatively impacted by civil asset forfeiture, which has become little more than legalized theft by government that is flies in the face of the Fifth Amendment's guarantee that "[n]o person shall...be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.