After vetoing a stronger version of asset forfeiture legislation, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead signed a bill that would still make significant improvements to the state’s forfeiture laws. The legislation was passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature.
Under the new law, a hearing must determine whether there is probable cause for seizure before forfeiture proceedings even begin. Once that burden in met, law enforcement must demonstrate with clear and convincing evidence that the property to be forfeited was involved in a crime. This represents a significant improvement over current law, which placed the burden of proof on the property owner to show that he was innocent. The new law not only shifts that burden to the government, but implements the highest evidentiary standard available in civil court.
The new law also specifies that if property is wrongfully forfeited, the court must cover legal fees and award damages to the property owner. Judges can also stop forfeiture that is grossly disproportionate to the crime committed.
Ideally, forfeiture would only take place after a criminal conviction, and not happen in civil court at all. That is the kind of strong reform we saw in New Mexico last year, and are encouraging other states to adopt as well. Nevertheless, the new law in Wyoming is unquestionably a step in the right direction, and we hope this will not be the last reform effort attempted by the state.
Civil asset forfeiture has been widely abused around the country for decades, and it is only recently that the public has been made aware of how dangerous the practice is. WIth that in mind, FreedomWorks is delighted that so many states have undertaken major reforms this year. We will continue to educate and drive action on this issue in our efforts to protect property rights, due process, and the rule of law.