Policing for Profit

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.

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 burdenOwner.
Wis. Stat. § 961.56(1).
Profit incentiveNo profit incentive.
Wis. Stat. § 961.55(5)(b), (e) (permitting seizing agencies to retain reasonable expenses).
Reporting requirementsNone
Other sourcesBalko, 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/.

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

State Forfeiture Data

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

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.

(calendar years)
(fiscal years)
Average Per Year$3,661,332$475,500