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Wisconsin earns a B for its civil forfeiture laws:

  • Low bar to forfeit and no conviction required
  • Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
  • No forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement

State Forfeiture Laws

Wisconsin’s civil forfeiture laws lack important protections for property rights, but they are tempered by the lack of a financial incentive to seize, earning the state a B grade. State law only requires the government to have “reasonable certainty by the greater weight of the credible evidence” that property is tied to a crime in order to forfeit it—a standard of proof akin to preponderance of the evidence. Innocent owners also bear the burden of demonstrating that they had nothing to do with the illegal use of their property in order to get it back. On the plus side, forfeiture proceeds in Wisconsin must be transferred to schools, providing law enforcement agencies with no incentive to police for profit.

Wisconsin law enforcement agencies are not required to track or report their forfeitures. Despite a lack of state-level data, there is anecdotal evidence of forfeiture abuse. For example, in 2011, Beverly Greer called the Brown County jail to find out how to post bail for her son. Police instructed her to bring the $7,500 bail to the jail in cash. When she arrived, police brought out a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted to the smell of drugs on the money. Claiming this as evidence that the cash was implicated in illegal activity, police seized it—even though most currency in circulation in the U.S. bears traces of narcotics and Greer had documentation proving the money had come from legal sources. It took four months and the help of an attorney to recover the money.

Show State Law Sources
Standard of proof

“[R]easonable certainty by the greater weight of the credible evidence.”

Wis. Stat. § 961.555(3); In re Return of Prop., 594 N.W.2d 738, 744 & n.9 (Wis. 1999); see generally Nommensen v. Am. Cont’l Ins. Co., 629 N.W.2d 301, 303–05 (Wis. 2001) (describing this unique standard as the burden of proof in civil cases).

Innocent owner burden

Owner.

Wis. Stat. § 961.56(1).

Profit incentive

No profit incentive.

Wis. Stat. § 961.55(5)(b), (e) (permitting seizing agencies to retain reasonable expenses).

Reporting requirements

None.

Other sources

Balko, R. (2012, May 21). Under asset forfeiture law, Wisconsin cops confiscate families’ bail money. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/20/asset-forfeiture-wisconsin-bail-confiscated_n_1522328.html.

Park, M. (2009, August 17). 90 percent of U.S. bills carry traces of cocaine. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/08/14/cocaine.traces.money/.

State Forfeiture Data

No data available. Law enforcement agencies are not required to track or report their forfeitures.

Wisconsin ranks 28th for federal forfeiture, with over $51 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.

Federal Equitable Sharing

Wisconsin ranks 28th for its law enforcement agencies’ use of the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. Agencies received more than $51 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the DOJ between calendar years 2000 and 2013. Over 70 percent of assets seized resulted from adoptions—the procedure curtailed by the DOJ in 2015—but over half of proceeds received stemmed from joint task forces and investigations, procedures largely unaffected by the policy change. Wisconsin agencies also received nearly $6.7 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the Treasury Department between fiscal years 2000 and 2013.

View Local Law Enforcement Data
YearDOJ
(calendar years)
Treasury
(fiscal years)
2000 $2,016,412 $108,000
2001 $2,122,265 $31,000
2002 $1,732,909 $821,000
2003 $2,993,749 $0
2004 $4,341,389 $38,000
2005 $3,848,951 $90,000
2006 $4,678,932 $99,000
2007 $5,326,058 $837,000
2008 $2,706,203 $852,000
2009 $4,345,815 $3,070,000
2010 $5,537,999 $182,000
2011 $3,401,564 $89,000
2012 $4,178,782 $319,000
2013 $4,027,616 $121,000
Total $51,258,644 $6,657,000
Average Per Year $3,661,332 $475,500

DOJ Equitable Sharing,
Adoptive vs. Joint, 2000-2013

Adoptions
Joint Task Forces and Investigations
Seizures
Proceeds

DOJ Equitable Sharing Proceeds, 2000-2013

Sources: Institute for Justice analysis of DOJ forfeiture data obtained by FOIA; Treasury Forfeiture Fund Accountability Reports. Data include civil and criminal forfeitures. Because DOJ figures represent calendar years and Treasury figures cover fiscal years, they cannot be added.

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