Is Wisconsin’s Civil Asset Forfeiture System Heading for Major Reform?

When a person hears the term civil asset forfeiture, the first thing that may come to their mind may be the idea of having to give up some piece of property to satisfy a judgment handed down in some type of civil lawsuit. While this is a good guess, it’s actually something far different and far more disconcerting.

Civil asset forfeiture appeared on the scene back in the 1980s as a way for law enforcement at both the federal and state level to combat drug trafficking. These laws essentially enable officers, agents or troopers to seize property — cars, boats, real estate, jewelry, etc. — that they merely believe is connected to criminal activity or purchased using ill-gotten gains.

If this sounds hard to believe, consider that the law here in Wisconsin allows law enforcement to take and keep property under these circumstances — even if no conviction is secured or no charges are ever brought against the owner. Indeed, the onus is entirely on the property owner to prove to the court that the property in question was not connected to criminal activity.

In recognition of the injustice that can result from this current state of affairs, including the sort of financial incentive it creates for law enforcement agencies to seize property, a group of state lawmakers has introduced a bipartisan bill that would overhaul the state’s civil asset forfeiture law.

Specifically, it would require all property forfeitures to be tied to criminal convictions, meaning no more seizures absent an actual sentence.

Furthermore, the forfeiture itself would need to be commensurate with the offense for which the person was convicted. By way of illustration, the state could not theoretically seize the car of an individual convicted of selling only a small amount of marijuana who used the car in question to facilitate the one-time drug sale.

Lastly, the bill would eliminate the financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property by requiring all proceeds derived from seized property to go directly to the state’s education fund.

“Civil asset forfeiture reform is an important step to ensure that no person is, ‘deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law’ as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment,” said Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon), the bill’s primary sponsor.

It remains to be seen whether the bill will gain the necessary traction. Given its bipartisan support, and the growing disdain for old-style civil asset forfeiture both locally and nationally, it would appear its chances are good.

What are your thoughts?

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