CHEYENNE, Wyo. (March 30, 2016) – Some recent news headlines trumpeted asset forfeiture reform in Wyoming as a potential “game-changing precedent.” It could indeed be game-changing – like getting stopped on the goal line in the fourth quarter of a football game.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed Senate File 46 into law on Feb. 29. It does provide some modest reform to the state’s asset forfeiture laws, but it can hardly be considered a “game-changer” if you mean it in a positive way.

The new law requires a preliminary hearing before a judge within 30 days of property seizure and police must prove they had “probable cause” to take the property. If the seizure moves forward, the state must prove “clear and convincing evidence” exists that the property was a part of criminal activity to finalize the seizure. This is a much lower legal threshold than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

While the new law certainly improves Wyoming’s asset forfeiture process, and provides some additional protections for individuals, it still allows law enforcement to seize property related to a “crime” without any criminal conviction. In other words, police can take people’s stuff for a crime even when they can’t prove the individual actually committed a crime.

Even worse, the new law fails to close a loophole that allows state and local law enforcement to pass cases off to the feds and avoid more stringent state laws.

The inclusion of provisions barring state and local law enforcement agencies from transferring asset forfeiture to the federal government is particularly important. In several states with strict asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors have done just that. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass the need for a conviction under state law and collect up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program.

Late last December the U.S. Department of Justice suspended the Equitable Sharing Program due to budget cuts. But as the Washington Post reported, the suspension won’t likely be permanent.

“In its letter, the DOJ hints that it may be able to restart payments later: ‘By deferring equitable sharing payments now, we preserve our ability to resume equitable sharing payments at a later date should the budget picture improve.’ The DOJ hopes to ‘reinstate sharing distributions as soon as practical and financially feasible,’ the letter concludes.”

Even with the program suspension in place for now, the prohibition from passing off cases remains an important provision.

California prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have regularly utilized this loophole. As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government has inserted itself into the California’s asset forfeiture debate. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.


We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.

Asset forfeiture laws incentivize “policing for profit” on one hand, and dubious state-federal partnerships on the other.

The new Wyoming law fails to address this loophole, making it possible for police to circumvent even the modest reforms now in place. This is not a good precedent!

Mike Maharrey