- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Some Wyoming lawmakers are pushing again to try to require the state to secure criminal convictions in forfeiture cases that take cash and other assets from people suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Gov. Matt Mead vetoed a bill last year that would have required criminal convictions to support state forfeiture cases.

Mead, a former state and federal prosecutor, said in his veto message last year that he was satisfied with current law enforcement procedures.

Such cases can involve substantial amounts of money.

State District Judge Joseph B. Bluemel last week refused to dismiss a civil forfeiture case in which the state is seeking to take $470,000 in cash. A state trooper in November 2013 seized the cash from a vehicle being driven by Robert Miller of Des Plaines, Illinois, on Interstate 80.

The state has said in court papers that the trooper pulled Miller over for speeding in Uinta County. The state hasn’t filed any criminal charges against Miller, but instead waited about a year to bring an action in civil court to seize the money.

Bluemel last week rejected arguments from Miller’s lawyers that the state violated his rights to due process. Attempts to reach his lawyers as well as lawyers from the Wyoming attorney general’s office on the case were not immediately successful Tuesday.

San Francisco lawyer David Michael represents Miller. In an interview last year, Michael declined to discuss specifics of Miller’s case or comment on why he was carrying so much cash.

However, 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 last year.

The Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee last fall agreed to endorse a bill that would codify the state’s forfeiture procedures. The bill the committee endorsed would require the state to give formal notice to people whose property was seized and require judges to determine promptly whether the state had probable cause for the seizure.

However, the Joint Judiciary Committee rejected a bill that would have required a criminal conviction to justify forfeitures.

Several Judiciary Committee members have sponsored a bill of their own - filed this week - that would require the state secure a criminal conviction to support a forfeiture action. It would require a two-thirds vote to introduce the measure in the budget session that starts next month.

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, is one of the sponsors.

“Two of the amendments of our Constitution talk about search and seizure and the right of due process,” Baker said Tuesday. “And I support individual property rights. I think it’s important that the government be held accountable when they’re seizing personal property.”

Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said Tuesday he believes the committee-sponsored bill would provide the state about 80 percent of the improvement it needs on the asset forfeiture issue. He said it was largely prepared by the attorney general’s office and said he doesn’t expect it would face a veto if the Legislature approved it.

But Kinskey also said he sees requiring a criminal conviction to support asset forfeiture is a matter of principle.

“Asset forfeiture is an extraordinary remedy, and it should be done only after we make sure that the constitutional protections of the innocent are in place,” Kinskey said.

“We don’t want drugs, or drug dealers or carriers in the state of Wyoming, and that’s not what this bill is about,” Kinskey said. “This bill is about protecting the Constitution, which says property can only be taken with due process of law, and about protecting innocent people.”

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