With the abuses of asset forfeiture being loudly publicized, there has (finally) been some legislative pushback against these abusive programs. Wyoming's legislators -- hoping to institute asset forfeiture reform -- ran into pushback themselves from the state's governor, who vetoed the popular bill (which passed out of the Senate with an 80-9 vote) when it hit his desk.
Governor Matt Mead explained his reasons for doing so in a letter to the Senate president Phil Nicholas. According to Mead, he didn't agree that Wyoming has an asset forfeiture problem and saw no reason to curtail a program that is (supposedly) so effective in fighting the Drug War.
Now, while Wyoming hasn't made splashy headlines with bogus busts, it's more likely due to the limited population than better laws or better law enforcement. Mead's letter explaining his veto contains three examples he feels prove Wyoming is better-behaved than most when it comes to separating citizens from their possessions. But none of those are particularly persuasive.
One deals with $17,000 being returned after "procedural safeguards" were ignored. The other two simply assume the seizure of funds was completely justified, even though no corresponding conviction is noted in his explanation.
In one case, a car owner denied knowing whose $327,000 was found in his vehicle. Fully justified, of course, because as Mead explains, the seized funds were spent "to enforce drug laws." In the other case, $415,000 was found in a vehicle being carried on a semi trailer full of vehicles. This, too, was taken and the seizure fully justified because the money was obviously evil in and of itself. Here's Mead's actual sentence explaining what happened to these funds.
"The money was taken out of circulation so it could not be used for other illegal activity."
Stupid money. It's like it's a troubled teen in need of a grounding. "Don't let it out! It will probably just do illegal things!"
Not cited: the "illegal activity" prompting the seizure of the funds in either case.
The reform bill didn't ask for much -- just a conviction to go with every seizure -- but that was still too much for Mead, who still carries inside him the beating heart of a long-term prosecutor
. To him, these means are perfectly acceptable because drugs are a problem. Case closed.
That's likely one of the factors playing into the deployment of his otherwise seldom-used veto power. This is the other: a meeting with the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs -- which occurred three days before the veto
Beyond all that, Mead simply believes asset forfeiture is a law enforcement tool that simply cannot be questioned.
I believe civil asset forfeiture is important and it is right.
Too "right" to be even slightly
curtailed by the addition of a small but logical stipulation: a conviction of the assets' owner before the assets can be claimed. Mead prefers the way it's been done for years: assets are presumed guilty, the burden of proof rests on those whose assets have been seized and anything not clearly associated with any criminal activity can still be repurposed to fight the Everlasting War on Drugs.
Wyoming may not have a history of forfeiture abuse, but it makes no sense not to head off a problem before it becomes one. Everything about its current program
lends itself to abuse.
Wyoming has horrible civil forfeiture laws, with an F law grade. The state’s final grade is pulled up to a C only by limited use of equitable sharing (an evasion grade of A) to date. The government can seize and subsequently forfeit property with just probable cause that it is subject to forfeiture. This is the lowest standard, far easier for the government than proving criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A property owner who wishes to claim an innocent owner defense bears the burden of proof, effectively making owners guilty until proven innocent. All of the proceeds from civil forfeiture are distributed to the state Attorney General’s asset fund. In turn, those funds are used as matching funds for federal drug enforcement grants. Finally, although officials are required to collect information on the use of forfeiture, they did not respond to requests.
Gov. Mead's view of this program is rosy to the point of blindness. But that's the sort of thing we expect from career prosecutors who question very little if anything about the law enforcement under their purview and who wholeheartedly support strong drug enforcement tactics. Mead may not see any abuse occurring, but I get the feeling he's not looking too hard. Considering how low the bar is set in terms of burden of proof, you'd have to do some serious digging to find seizures not
justified by this barely-there requirement. And, considering the funds flow into Mead's former office, I would imagine he's in no hurry to find anything that might threaten the state's revenue stream, or its attendant matching funds grants from the US government.