- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Wyoming Governor Matt Mead on Monday signed into law a bill requiring judicial review of police seizures of vehicles, cash and other property that law enforcement authorities believe to be involved in the illegal drug trade.

Under the law that goes into effect in July, the Wyoming Attorney General will review seizures and decide whether they were justified. The AG then will have 30 days from the seizure to ask a judge to determine if there was probable cause that the property was involved in the drug trade - a finding that would enable the state to file a civil case to forfeit the property.

Previously, the AG’s Office often has taken up a year after a seizure to file civil lawsuits seeking to forfeit property seized by law enforcement. Some defense attorneys had criticized the state’s previous lack of an established legal procedure for handling forfeiture cases.

Mead last year vetoed a bill that would have required a criminal conviction to support civil asset forfeitures. A former federal and state prosecutor, he said he didn’t believe law enforcement was abusing the forfeiture process.

In an interview after the bill-signing ceremony in Cheyenne on Monday, Mead said the bill that passed this year marked a great improvement over the bill he vetoed last year.

“To have to have a conviction on the books just didn’t match the practical, day-to-day aspects of law enforcement,” Mead said. “Law enforcement needs to be able to make those decisions.”

Mead said he believes the previous forfeiture process has worked well in the state by having the attorney general review cases and determine whether they were justified.

However, Mead said, “For those who had concerns about what the process was, I think this codifies a solution that provides for judicial review and still allows forfeiture to be another tool in the toolbox for law enforcement in the work that they do to enforce not only drug laws, but other laws as well.”

The new law specifies that forfeiture may not be grossly disproportionate to the offense. Many lawmakers expressed concern in committee hearings that people shouldn’t lose assets such as new pickup trucks for minor offenses such as possessing a small amount of marijuana.

The law also specifies that a judge may award attorney fees and damages to a person who successfully challenges an unwarranted forfeiture.

Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which endorsed the bill. Speaking at the bill-signing ceremony, he said work on the issue since Mead’s veto last year resulted in a much better product.

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