Property owners who have had their cash seized by police in Wyoming face a low chance of ever recovering their money. Since 2010, police have seized nearly $1.3 million in cash, but returned a mere $190,000 to owners, according to new data provided by the Wyoming Joint Judiciary Committee. In other words, less than 15 percent of all cash seized by Wyoming law enforcement was returned to property owners. Drivers and gun owners had better luck: The state return seized cars and firearms about one-third and one-fifth of the time, respectively.
Thanks to civil forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors do not need to charge someone with a crime to seize and then forfeit seized property. In cases where property was returned, owners either successfully negotiated with prosecutors or a judge ordered the property’s return.
Between 2008 and 2013, the median value of all property seized (including cars, cash and firearms) was just around$2,000, according to Steve Klein of the Wyoming Liberty Group. Moreover, since those facing civil forfeiture proceedings do not have a right to an attorney, the cost of hiring an attorney can often be greater than the value of the seized property itself. Klein estimates in only 20 percent of cases did property owners have legal counsel to fight forfeiture.
Criticizing the state for its “horrible civil forfeiture laws,” the Institute for Justice gave Wyoming an F in a 2010 report. Under state law, the government does not have to prove someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as is the case for criminal convictions. Instead, prosecutors need only show by a “preponderance of the evidence” that there is a connection between alleged criminal activity and seized property. Moreover, property owners must bear the burden of proof, meaning they are essentially guilty until proven innocent. All forfeited money and property is sent to the state Attorney General’s asset fund, which in turn distributes forfeiture funds as matching grants to local and state law enforcement.
Earlier this year, a bill requiring a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture overwhelmingly passed both legislative chambers in Wyoming. But Gov. Matt Mead (a former federal prosecutor) vetoed the bill. In late February, lawmakers failed to override the veto.
Currently, the Joint Judiciary Committee is considering new reform legislation. One proposed bill would raise the burden of proof to “clear and convincing evidence” to forfeit property, create a preliminary hearing to evaluate if a seizure had probable cause and establish a right to a trial by jury. The second proposed bill would require that an owner be convicted of a felony drug crime before the government could forfeit his or her property. Both bills would also institute new reporting requirements.
But other states, especially out West, have drastically overhauled their civil forfeiture laws. Minnesotaand Montana now require a criminal conviction before taking property with civil forfeiture. Adopting IJ’smodel legislation, New Mexico outlawed civil forfeiture and banned law enforcement from keeping any forfeiture proceeds. In a similar vein, Washington, D.C., now directs all forfeiture proceeds to the general fund, instead of padding law enforcement budgets. Most recently, the California legislature advanced a bill that would curb local and state law enforcement from participating in a federal forfeiture program, which has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for police and prosecutors. As the data makes clear, Wyoming’s civil forfeiture laws are in dire need of reform.
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice