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Governor Mead Vetoes Due Process and Property Rights

After it passed the Wyoming Legislature overwhelmingly, with a final overall vote of 80-9 (1 excused), this evening Governor Matt Mead vetoed Senate Enrolled Act 1–or Senate File 14. The bill would replace civil forfeiture under the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act with criminal forfeiture, requiring a felony conviction before alleged drug property could be forfeited to the government. Governor Mead has rarely used his veto power in the five legislative sessions since he took office, so it is especially shocking he would veto a strong reform for due process and property rights.

A copy of Mead’s veto letter is below:

mead letter p 1

mead letter p 2 (Download a pdf copy here)

No; Wyoming has not “passed the test.” We’ve simply failed less than some other states. This is nothing to be proud of. Governor Mead owes us better.

Speaking against those who support asset forfeiture reform (that is, I guess, us), Governor Mead asserts: “They have not found an egregious case or one abuse of law or of individual rights in a 40 year history.” Clearly, the Governor has not reviewed the files or bothered speaking to us about them. If he had, perhaps he would have noticed or heard about the case where $4,855 was seized over a small quantity of marijuana in 2010. The driver was not even charged with a misdemeanor. He had to retain an attorney and after a year he managed to get his property back in court, and the state did not reimburse his legal fees. In 2012, $4,828 in cash was seized over a marijuana misdemeanor charge. Without an attorney, the driver managed to get 20% of his property back in a settlement. In 2008, in a big drug case involving cocaine, the defendant’s girlfriend showed up at the jail here in Cheyenne to bail him out. The $22,000 in bail money was seized—long before the defendant had been convicted of a crime—and eventually forfeited to the federal DEA. It doesn’t get much more Kafkaesque than that. Examples abound.

Instead of making an inquiry the Governor simply repeats some of the same misrepresentations of facts presented by law enforcement lobbyists in the 2014-15 interim and then during this session. Although in the first case the Governor references the $17,000 highway seizure was indeed returned to the property owner, like so many refund cases it was only after the property owner retained an attorney who wrote a strong letter to the Attorney General. Less than 20% of property owners in Wyoming forfeiture cases have legal counsel. With a median seizure of only $2,000 per case, it’s usually not worth an owner’s money to retain an attorney, because legal fees may amount to well over $2,000 (which, again, the government does not have to reimburse even if it loses in court). This is why, among other reasons, 66% of Wyoming forfeiture cases end in default, release of interest or settlement (usually surrendering to the state 90% of the property).

The pre-2008 cases the governor mentions may be impressive; (contrary to the Governor’s assertion) they took place well before the review period we undertook last fall. What is all too telling is that the Governor does not mention whether the owners of the property were convicted of a crime, thus proving the money in fact belonged to drug traffickers. I’m willing to bet they were not even charged.

With civil forfeiture, it doesn’t matter how well the law is enforced; it’s the law that’s the problem. When the government may take your property without convicting–much less charging–you of a crime, it’s a problem. When you are forced into court to prove your property is legitimate–again, usually without legal counsel because the government need not provide one if you can’t afford it—it’s a problem. Any time the deck is stacked in favor of the government like this, it’s a problem.

So, today, with the Governor’s veto, civil forfeiture is still a problem in Wyoming.

If you are a Wyoming resident, please contact your legislators–particularly your Senators, as the Senate must reconsider the bill first–and urge an override of the Governor’s veto of Senate File 14. Refer to this guide for contact methods. The votes are already there - our citizen legislature need only stick to its guns, with the same courage that passed Senate File 14 in the first place.

Limited Government and Political Realism
Measuring the Structural Deficit in Wyoming

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

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