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Money is Not the Issue

| August 24, 2017

The Milwaukee Common Council just voted unanimously to support pending legislation that reforms civil asset forfeiture.  One alderman described the current practice of seizing assets without criminal conviction as a “moral hazard.”

This is not the first time the Common Council has expressed concern over the use of civil asset forfeiture proceeds.  Earlier this year, the council was disappointed to learn law enforcement were keeping money from forfeiture to finance law enforcement operations instead of community projects.

In debating the resolution, the concern for funding came up.  Opponents argued that the loss of funds gained through asset forfeiture would stifle the ability for law enforcement to protect and serve.  However, as I’ve written before about the shocking lack of reporting requirements in Wisconsin, there’s no measure in place to truly verify the necessity of the funds.

But, for a moment, let’s pretend it is undisputedly true that law enforcement would be dangerously underfunded if the civil asset forfeiture reform before the Legislature becomes law.  The proposed law requires a criminal conviction before seized personal property is forfeited to the state.  Without the reforms, our law enforcement agencies are being funded by taking property alleged to be the product of criminal activity. In other words, there is currently no requirement for agencies to provide clear and convincing evidence before seizing someone’s assets. That’s troublesome.

Relying on the scare tactic of underfunded law enforcement agencies side steps the real issue. Current asset forfeiture laws do not require the basic civil rights protections we should expect when the government takes private property.

The Legislature has debated civil asset forfeiture reform for the last couple of years. Those opposed have yet to provide an explanation for why forfeiture without a criminal conviction is fair. But in their defense, taking property without proving its connection to a crime is not fair. That’s impossible to say with a straight face.


THOMAS LYONS entered the legal field after receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a law degree from Marquette University. Working in offices in Kewaunee and Sheboygan Counties, Tom’s practice focused primarily on criminal defense, juvenile, and mental health law. Switching to the world of policy, Tom started as a legislative aide to a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, followed by a State Senator, and for a brief time Governor Scott Walker before joining Right on Crime on 2017.