- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - State lawmakers have rejected a bill that would have made it harder for authorities to seize property related to suspected drug crimes.

House Bill 76 died Friday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reported the proposal would have increased the burden of proof that law enforcement needs to show when it wants to seize vehicles used to transport illegal drugs.

Current law says property can be forfeited when it appears that the owner is a knowing and consenting participant in a crime.

The bill would have changed the language to say there needs to be clear and convincing evidence.

Its lead sponsor, Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, said the bill would have ensured that seizures only occur when there is proof, rather than just suspicion, that a crime occurred and that the owner of the property is responsible.

“I think we can all agree that you are innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “And we think the law should reflect that.”

He said there was no evidence that law enforcement groups in the state are improperly seizing property. But he said the current law allows for potential abuse and corruption.

Steve Klein, a staff attorney with the Wyoming Liberty Group, agreed.

He said the state should take a broader look at several other problems he sees in its seizure and forfeiture laws. But he said this proposal is a good “first step.”

“The problem with the law is that it can be abused very, very easily,” he said. “So this is certainly a step in the right direction.”

But the bill died without a vote in the committee after lawmakers expressed concerns that they would only be changing a portion of the laws that affect what and when property can be seized.

Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said the legislation would not apply to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s ability to seize property, for example.

“This bill might be going in the right direction,” he said. “But if we do pass this bill with two different standards of forfeiture law, at least for a year we would have one standard for drugs and another standard for Game and Fish and other crimes.”

The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, added he too believes the proposal could prevent some of the potential for abuse. But he said he is worried that the bill does not get to the “root of the problem.”

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