Steve Klein: Shoddy Reporting of Forfeiture Activity in Wyoming Prevalent

Steve Klein at the Wyoming Liberty Group writes:

...Our state law requires very little reporting from the Attorney General’s Office about the use of civil forfeiture, and the office has never even compiled these reports. The limited data available shows that the use of civil forfeiture in Wyoming has declined in recent years, but also indicate police agencies may be seizing far too much property without good cause. Whatever the circumstances, Wyoming law should be reformed to prevent future abuses.

The war on drugs is a touchy subject, but state law must not provide police with loopholes through constitutional protections of due process and property rights. Our civil forfeiture law can be reformed in numerous ways that will close these loopholes without hindering law enforcement from seizing narcotics or actual tools of the drug trade. Wyoming can become a leader in tough, but fair law enforcement. This is a great place to start.

Wyoming's civil forfeiture laws are pretty bad. According to the Institute for Justice in 2010:

Wyoming has horrible civil forfeiture laws, with an F law grade.  The state’s final grade is pulled up to a C only by limited use of equitable sharing (an evasion grade of A) to date.  The government can seize and subsequently forfeit property with just probable cause that it is subject to forfeiture.  This is the lowest standard, far easier for the government than proving criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  A property owner who wishes to claim an innocent owner defense bears the burden of proof, effectively making owners guilty until proven innocent.  All of the proceeds from civil forfeiture are distributed to the state Attorney General’s asset fund.  In turn, those funds are used as matching funds for federal drug enforcement grants.  Finally, although officials are required to collect information on the use of forfeiture, they did not respond to requests.

Klein's brief "Reforming Civil Asset Forfeiture in Wyoming" is available here on SSRN, and includes these sensible recommendations:

There is some evidence that police agencies in Wyoming abuse civil asset forfeiture, and the law should be reformed to prevent abuse and better protect innocent citizens. Importantly, this can be achieved without sacrificing the effectiveness of the law through several amendments to the Controlled Substances Act. The most important change is to raise the level of proof required in a forfeiture hearing to at least a clear and convincing standard of proof. Other reforms to consider include bolstering due process by eliminating the prospective element from seizure, placing all revenue from seized assets in a general state fund, and ending Wyoming’s participation in equitable sharing with the federal government. At the very least, transparency should be extended to require police agencies to account for all revenue acquired through the civil forfeiture process.


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