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Wisconsin Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Inches Towards Reality

| September 20, 2017

The Senate Labor and Regulatory Reform Committee passed comprehensive civil asset forfeiture reform on a 3-2 vote.  The vote allows the full Senate to take up the measure.

The bill, Senate Bill 61, offers real reform addressing all the concerns of current civil asset forfeiture laws.  A criminal conviction would be required prior to the government being allowed to take ownership rights of a persons property.  Law enforcement agencies would have to report to the state the totals and the uses of the assets forfeited.  The statutes would be clarified to address the intent of current law that funds only go towards actual costs of the law enforcement operation.  Sharing in federal seizures would be limited to assets worth more than $50,000 preventing sidestepping state requirements with the help from the federal DOJ.  The standards used to challenge the proportionality of the seizure would be codified using current common law.  All in all, a pretty decisive victory for due process and property rights if the bill becomes law.

In more good news, the two biggest components of the bill (the requirement that each forfeiture stem from a criminal conviction and reporting requirements) were not singled out or even mentioned in the debate preceding the vote.  The silence on those two topics suggests legislators are prepared to state definitively that current protections are inadequate.  Confirming a crime happened via a criminal conviction to seize criminal property permanently is just common sense.  Requiring disclosure by reporting requirements is simply good government that provides the average citizen necessary tools to observe their government in action.

This is the first time a comprehensive asset forfeiture reform bill has cleared a committee in Wisconsin.  The lack of arguments against the key features of Senate Bill 61 are positive signs the Legislature is ready to make real reform a reality.

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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.

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