Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Moves Forward in Wisconsin

Story Date: 
Jan 21, 2016

Police agencies in Wisconsin use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize – and then keep or sell – property they allege is involved in a crime.  Even if the owner of the property is innocent or never charged, they may never get their property back.  From the moment police seize the property until the courts act, owners are harmed, and may be deprived of their vehicle or the funds they may need to hire an attorney.

Under state and federal civil asset forfeiture schemes, Wisconsin police agencies seize and keep millions of dollars of property (often vehicles or cash) every year.   The police keep 50% or more of the seized property for their own use.   Giving police a cut of the seized property is a perverse incentive leading to bad police stops.  Some police departments even appear to be after the property – not the criminals.

Wisconsin’s civil asset forfeiture scheme is clearly an affront to due process rights and property rights.

Shamefully, the exact number of seizures and just what happens to this money and property is not known, because Wisconsin police agencies are not required to report their activity to the state in a comprehensive or uniform manner.   However, it is clear from media reports and court records that law enforcement abuses individuals.

In 2012, the Brown County Drug Task Force arrested a man on drug charges.  They told his mother to bring his bail in cash, even though cash is not required for bail.  When the family arrived at the jail, the officers brought out a drug sniffing dog, who alerted on the cash which had only just been withdrawn from ATMs and the bank. The officers seized the $7,500, and only after the family was able to get an attorney did they get their funds back.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/20/asset-forfeiture-wisconsin-bail-confiscated_n_1522328.html

The police agencies seem to make a point of using civil asset forfeiture schemes, against college students, poor people, and people of Mexican heritage instead of against kingpins. 

The City of Whitewater police department is a good example of an agency that appears to abuse civil asset forfeiture.

According to media accounts, Whitewater police seized the car a freshman had on campus and kept it although her father was the “innocent owner” of the vehicle.  The young woman, who had sold a small amount of marijuana and a non-prescription drug to an informant, was never charged with a crime.  http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/262785541.html

Another case from Whitewater is a good example of how the penalty imposed by civil asset forfeiture often doesn’t fit the crime.  In 2015, a state appeals court found that a seizure and forfeiture was unconstitutional because it was excessive.  A grandmother and her grandson jointly purchased a new Toyota Corolla for $22,500.   Whitewater police arrested the college student for selling small amounts of marijuana three times, and seized the vehicle.   The court of appeals panel held that seizing the vehicle was disproportionate for the grandmother but not the student.  This $26,000 car was kept by the police although the amount of the drugs sold did not exceed $250. http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/262785541.html

The ACLU of Wisconsin has joined with organizations and legislators from across the political spectrum to support bills in the Wisconsin Legislature designed to reform our state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. 

A bipartisan group of legislators has introduced civil asset forfeiture reform bills, Assembly Bill 537 and Senate Bill 521

These reform bills allow property to be subject to civil asset forfeiture only if a person is convicted of the related crime and only if the court finds that the property seized is proportional to the crime committed.  They seek to protect innocent owners, and provide a procedure for owners to petition for return of their property after it is seized but not yet forfeited.  They also require all proceeds to go to the state school fund so that police agencies no longer have an incentive to make bad stops. 

Please contact your legislator today to ask them to cosponsor or vote in favor of Assembly Bill 537 and Senate Bill 521.