- Associated Press - Thursday, October 29, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming lawmakers are considering whether to end the state’s practice of forfeiting vehicles and other assets that police suspect have been used for drug smuggling even if the owners are never convicted of a crime.

Under Wyoming’s current system of handling forfeitures, when a law enforcement officer pulls over someone they believe is suspicious they contact the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office for permission to seize the vehicle or other property such as cash or guns.

A lawyer at the office listens to the officer and decides whether there’s probable cause to believe a drug crime has been committed. If so, the lawyer gives police approval to seize the property and the state then may take up to a year to bring a court action to forfeit it. Occasionally, the state seeks to forfeit cash without ever filing a criminal charge.

In a pending case in Uinta County, a state trooper in November 2013 seized $470,000 cash from Robert Miller of Des Plaines, Illinois, on I-80. The state has said in court papers that the trooper pulled Miller over for speeding. The state didn’t file any criminal charges against Miller and now he is fighting to get the money back.

District Judge Joseph B. Bluemel heard arguments this month that the state violated Miller’s right to due process. The judge has yet to rule.

San Francisco lawyer David Michael represents Miller. Michael has declined to discuss specifics of Miller’s case or comment on why he was carrying so much cash.

“The government wants everybody to believe that if any human being has over $10,000 in cash that they’re a criminal,” Michael said.

Michael said the U.S. Constitution requires that people receive notice and an opportunity to be heard as quickly as possible when the government seizes their property.

“The big issue in this case has to do with due process because the forfeiture laws in Wyoming are horrible,” Michael said.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee is set to consider two bills at its meeting next week in Cody that would change how the state handles drug forfeiture cases.

One would require a conviction before the state could take assets. The other bill would require a civil court hearing within 30 days to determine if forfeiture is appropriate. If the judge approved a seizure, the state would have up to a year to file a court action.

The Legislature early this year passed a bill that would have required the state to obtain a criminal conviction before forfeiting a person’s property but Republican Gov. Matt Mead vetoed it.

Mead, a former state and federal prosecutor who served previously as U.S. attorney in Wyoming, said he hadn’t seen abuses in how Wyoming handled asset forfeitures that would justify changing state law.

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael, no relation to Miller’s lawyer, said he favors establishing the civil court procedure that would allow judges to decide whether forfeitures were reasonable.

Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he said he expects both forfeiture bills will clear the committee, He said he personally supports tightening state law to require a conviction to support any forfeiture.

“You can’t take people’s property without due process, it’s that simple,” Miller said.

Steve Klein, a lawyer with the Wyoming Liberty Group, has reviewed hundreds of forfeiture cases. The group, supported by Gore-Tex heiress Susan Gore, works on public policy issues and has pressed to change the state’s forfeiture laws.

Klein said he would favor the bill requiring a criminal conviction to support forfeitures.

“I understand how suspicious it is to carry $470,000 in cash,” Klein said. “Having said that, that suspicion doesn’t even rise to probable cause. There’s nothing illegal about carrying cash. Some people call that the American Dream.”

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