Governor strikes down asset forfeiture bill

“In my opinion [it] is as close as you can get to legalized theft” – Rep. Lindholm

 

By Sarah Pridgeon

 

Governor Matt Mead has exercised his right to veto a bill regarding civil asset forfeiture, telling legislators he has “grave reservations” about its contents. Senate File 14 would have changed the procedure such that a person must be convicted of a drug felony before the state can forfeit assets such as cars, firearms and money.

“It’s a huge disappointment that the Governor chose to veto Senate File 14 Asset Forfeiture,” said Representative Tyler Lindholm.

“This bill was sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Committee that consists of both senators and representatives, and passed both legislative bodies by a huge margin of 90-9 with one excused.”

According to the governor, asset forfeiture has huge benefits, not least that it removes the profit from the illegal drug business and gives substance to the phrase, ‘crime doesn’t pay’.

“Crime should not pay, especially drug crime. Profits from drugs fund more drugs, support drug dealers and put communities in danger and children at risk,” he said in a letter to Senate President Phil Nicholas.

“At the same time, laws that deter crime cannot do so at all costs. All laws must be scrutinized to ensure they safeguard fundamental rights and protect individual freedom while accomplishing their purpose.”

Though Mead recognized in his letter that civil forfeiture has been abused in some states, he stated that Wyoming law enforcement has used it as a “legitimate tool” against those who profit from the “destruction caused by drugs”.

“Those who speak against civil forfeiture have combed Wyoming’s forfeiture files and have analyzed many hundreds of cases. They have not found an egregious case or one abuse of law or of individual rights in a 40 year history,” he said.

“The singular example of a forfeiture gone wrong cited by opponents is actually an example of a forfeiture gone right.”

In the example cited, $17,000 was purportedly taken from an individual without following procedural safeguards. The substance of the law had been met, said the governor, and the Attorney General identified the error and took immediate steps to return the cash.

Mead cited two examples of successful asset forfeiture cases, including as a 2003 traffic stop in which the car owner denied knowing who owned the $327,000 in the vehicle, which was forfeited and used to enforce drug laws, and the $415,000 found concealed in a car loaded on a semi-truck vehicle hauler in 2013, which was taken out of circulation so it could not be used for other illegal activity.

“I understand the debate. I agree with the scrutiny,” said Mead.

“Wyoming has passed the test. We use the law as it was intended to be used. We should not solve a problem that does not exist or rearrange a law that works based on ‘what ifs’.”

According to Lindholm, however, civil asset forfeiture violates the fifth, sixth and seventh amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“In my opinion, [it] is as close as you can get to legalized theft.  Our justice system is built on the premise that you are innocent till proven guilty, and it is my hope that we can override this veto,” he said.

“In doing so, we will send a message to the citizens of Wyoming that we believe that the Constitution and their rights matter and that the government does not have the right to take away the possessions of her citizens without first convicting them of a crime.”

Steve Woodson, Head of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, weighed in on the argument last week with a Facebook post defending asset forfeiture and claiming that “many legislators are either on the board of certain groups and/or are provided significant political contributions by groups which influence their vote.”

Mead responded to the post, saying that “an executive branch official’s impugning of others or a position taken on the bill is wrong – dead wrong, and the offending remarks should be removed from the public domain. They certainly do not reflect my views.”

The post has since been removed and an apology issued.