Civil Asset Forfeiture

After Veto, Wyoming Considers Milder Asset Forfeiture Reform

But there's still legislation under consideration to mandate conviction first.


Gov. Matt Mead

Earlier this year, Wyoming's legislature overwhelmingly passed asset forfeiture reform that would have required an actual conviction before law enforcement officials within the state could take and keep its citizens' belongings.

Unfortunately, the legislation was vetoed by Republican Gov. Matt Mead, who insisted that law enforcement officers in his state were not abusing the law. Though the new law was passed with a veto-proof majority, some legislators subsequently switched their votes and let the law die. Legislators promised to revisit potential reforms to its current, very loose, civil forfeiture regulations.

So now it's back and legislators are hammering out a new bill, currently still in the drafting state. Unfortunately, it looks like the mandate that the government actually convict defendants of crimes before seizing their stuff may go by the wayside. There are a couple of proposals under consideration. One would not require a conviction, but would increase the current looser, more easily abused "preponderance of evidence" standard to seize. Instead a "clear and convincing evidence" threshold, higher, but not as high as conviction, would be considered. This bill would also grant a property owner a right to a jury trial to fight a forfeiture. It also calls for some form of analysis of "proportionality" of the forfeiture that allows the courts to reduce the amount of assets taken to fit the severity of the crime. (This part of the bill feels a little odd, as defenders of asset forfeiture don't talk about it as a type of "punishment" so much as preventing criminals from keeping the proceeds and assets they've earned from criminal behavior.)

The second proposed bill would again alter the rules to require criminal conviction for asset seizure. Property owners in such forfeiture cases would be allowed both a trial by jury and the right to legal representation. Clearly, from the perspective of actual asset forfeiture reform, the second choice is better. It would eliminate the concept of "civil asset forfeiture" entirely. Law enforcement could only take property when they are able to prove a crime happened.

Steve Klein, an attorney with the Wyoming Liberty Group, analyzes both the proposed laws here. Jason Pye at FreedomWorks also talks about Wyoming's reform efforts here