CHEYENNE – Two bills seeking to reform Wyoming’s controversial asset seizure and forfeiture laws were introduced at the start of this year’s legislative session.
But only one of the proposals – the less controversial of the two – remains alive as the Legislature has moved into its third week.
House Bill 14 was among the proposals that died a quiet death Friday when it failed to meet a legislative deadline for bills to clear their first reading in their chamber of origin by the close of that day’s work.
The proposal would have prevented authorities from seizing property, such as vehicles or cash, in drug-related crimes unless there is a criminal conviction.
This would effectively end the state’s current civil asset forfeiture policy that allows property to be seized as long as there is probable cause that it was used in connection with the crime.
The bill was nearly identical to a proposal that easily passed the House and Senate during last year’s legislative session. But Gov. Matt Mead vetoed that measure and the Legislature failed to override it.
Another showdown between the Legislature and the governor seemed possible after the proposal easily passed its introduction vote and then cleared the House Judiciary Committee on a 6-3 decision.
But its death now leaves Senate File 46 as the only remaining asset forfeiture bill that still has a chance of passing this year.
The bill was the result of the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee’s work over the last year to find a compromise measure that would satisfy both the law enforcement community and those pushing for reforms.
They came up with a plan that provides additional steps before a judge can order property to be seized. But it still allows property to be seized and forfeited without requiring a conviction.
The bill specifically requires law enforcement officials to contact the attorney general to determine whether to proceed with the seizure. A hearing before a judge would then be scheduled within 30 days to decide whether there is sufficient probable cause to move forward.
It also shifts the burden to the government to show that there is “clear and convincing” evidence that the property can be seized.
The proposal passed the Senate on a 30-0 vote last week and cleared its first of three votes in the House on Monday.
Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, was among those who said they favored the more stringent HB 14, since it required a criminal conviction before property could be seized.
But after the death of that bill, Kroeker said he will support SF 46.
“In the future, I will continue to work for requiring a criminal conviction (before property can be seized),” he said. “But I don’t want to not pass (SF 46) and find someone who potentially had their rights violated and say, ‘Hey, I voted against giving you some protections instead of none,’” Kroeker said.
“So I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I think it’s the first step in what hopefully will be another further step that will follow.”
Linda Burt, the former head of the now-defunct Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also supported requiring a criminal conviction before a seizure could take place.
But she said SF 46 is still a good compromise that adds needed protections for residents.
“I don’t think this is an instance where the good is the enemy of the best,” she said. “And I would like to see this passed because I think it’s an improvement.”
The bill will be up for its second reading in the House today. If it advances without amendments, it would then be up for its final legislative approval on Wednesday.