- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A bill to require the state to secure a criminal conviction in order to forfeit property that authorities believe has been used in the illegal drug trade advanced in committee Thursday.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-to-3 to send the bill along to the full House for consideration despite the objections of some law enforcement groups. Committee Chairman Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, is sponsoring the bill.

Current Wyoming law doesn’t require the Attorney General’s Office to secure a criminal conviction before it proceeds with civil court action to forfeit items such as vehicles and cash that law enforcement has seized on the belief it was involved in the drug trade.

The Wyoming Attorney General’s Office has waited up to a year to file civil forfeiture cases seeking to extinguish an owner’s legal title to cash or other property seized by law enforcement in cases in which there’s never been a criminal prosecution.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a former state and federal prosecutor, last year vetoed a bill that would have required a criminal conviction to support civil property forfeitures. He said in his veto message that he was satisfied law enforcement in the state wasn’t abusing the current system.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday is set to consider a parallel bill that would require the state to convince a judge that there was probable cause to forfeit property but still wouldn’t require a criminal conviction.

Lobbyists for the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police and Wyoming Peace Officers Association said they opposed Miller’s bill.

“We have concerns about the conviction element,” said Sam Powell, speaking for the Wyoming Peace Officers Association. “We really like the committee bill. We think the committee bill answers the questions that were raised in the process last year and puts sufficient safeguards in place.”

Lt. Col. Shannon Ratliff of the Wyoming Highway Patrol also spoke against Miller’s bill to require a criminal conviction to support asset forfeitures.

“I would offer that, almost daily, we take a large amount of poison and we take, as it happens, a large amount of money from people that are determined to be criminals,” Ratliff said. “If they’re criminals and we leave that money with them, we’re not taking their tools away from them. I would offer that we need to rethink this.”

Miller told Ratliff that law enforcement would still be allowed to seize money and other assets from people officers believe to be criminals. “And if you have a case, you get to keep it,” Miller said.

Ratliff responded, “Correct, but if it’s determined that, upon probable cause, that we seize that money, which is the threshold, if we don’t convict them of anything, we have to give it back to the criminals.”

Miller said, “That’s the American way, I thought.”

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