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Civil Asset Forfeiture in Wyoming: Now with More Due Process and Property Rights

In the 2016 Budget Session, Senate File 46 passed the Wyoming Legislature without a single vote in opposition. This bill significantly reforms the state’s practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government to seize and keep property that is allegedly related to the illegal drug trade without convicting or even charging the owner of a crime. 

The law goes into effect today, July 1. Any forfeiture under the law will have to complete the following process: first, the state must have a preliminary hearing within 30 days of seizing property, meaning a judge must affirm that there was probable cause for the seizure. The forfeiture case itself must occur within 120 days of seizure or within 30 days after a related criminal case concludes (that is, a case where the property owner is actually tried for a drug crime). In forfeiture trials, the Attorney General must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property is actually drug property, just shy of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that’s required in criminal cases. The property owner may have a jury trial and may also recover attorney’s fees and damages if the state loses the case. 

The law previously provided none of these protections. 

WyLiberty’s role in this reform amounted to nearly three years of research and advocacy, from our Liberty Brief on the topic in December 2013 to further research and testimony throughout the 2014-15 and 2015-16 legislative interims. We weathered the failure of a simple reform bill in 2014, endured the veto of an omnibus criminal forfeiture bill in 2015, and celebrated this final passage. With help from allies—some certainly beyond the pigeonhole where our critics try to put us—and grassroots support, up against an influential law enforcement lobby that isn’t above playing fast-and-loose with the truth, this was not just WyLiberty’s show, but we were certainly center stage. 

And the show is not over. WyLiberty’s efforts in the state’s budget crisis and other important areas of public policy continue, and civil forfeiture will still require public oversight. Whether keeping tabs on Wyoming’s relationship with the federal equitable sharing program or scrutinizing the Attorney General’s annual reports to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee (also a new requirement in the law), civil forfeiture remains a very powerful—and, thus, potentially dangerous—tool for law enforcement that must be closely monitored and may require further reform.  

It is certainly frustrating that liberty must overcome politics; too often it doesn’t. But politics, the art of lawmaking, is itself a bulwark against excessive authority—provided those who respect freedom show up. As we celebrate this victory for due process and property rights going into Independence Day weekend, this is balanced with a sober reflection on the tried-and-true cliché that the price of liberty is, indeed, eternal vigilance.

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Monday, 11 December 2017

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