In August 2012, Stuart was pulled over on suspicion of a minor traffic violation. Although he was never charged with a crime, the cops seized $17,550 Stuart had with him. The owner of a small barbecue joint in Maryland, Stuart was trying to get his life on track after some past run-ins with the law.
The $17,550 was his earnings from the restaurant, money he intended to put toward supplies and equipment. Stuart’s past made credit nearly impossible to obtain, so cash was the only currency of his business.
He finally got the money back—14 months after it was confiscated. By that time, with no cash to cover the cost of his overhead, Stuart’s barbecue joint was long gone.
Along the way, Stuart resisted a settlement offer from prosecutors who said they would return half of his cash.
“I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart told The Washington Post. “Why should I give them my money?”
The Baltimore Sun reported that in 2012, 48 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases closed in Maryland resulted in the government keeping property without a conviction. The publication also found that 80 percent of people from whom the federal government seized property for forfeiture were never charged with a crime.
You don’t need to look as far as Maryland for examples of innocent people who have had their assets seized by law enforcement. There are plenty of glaring examples right here in the Badger State.
That’s why proponents of a bill to reform Wisconsin’s civil asset forfeiture laws are fighting so hard for passage.
Senate Bill 521 had a hearing this week before the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform.
Among its changes, the legislation mandates a conviction to complete forfeiture of personal property seized and removes the incentive for “policing for profit” by directing funds from all forfeit penalties to the Education Fund. In other words, law enforcement may no longer bank on seized assets in putting together, or padding, its budgets.
Currently, law enforcement officials are allowed to seize property they believe has been used in illegal activity or is the result of illegal activities. The agency can then begin court proceedings to have the property declared forfeited and sell it even when the owner of the property has never been charged with a crime.
Civil asset forfeiture laws exist in most states, and the federal government also has a version of the laws.
A reform movement has taken root nationally, including in Wisconsin.
Larry Gamble, spokesman for Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, a nonpartisan Constitution advocacy organization that supports the reform measure, said the legislation goes a long way in ending law enforcement’s presumption of guilt.
“Their argument is nobody carries that kind of money around … anymore, so it has to be illegal. That’s the mentality driven into law enforcement today,” Gamble said.
In Wisconsin, police agencies are allowed to keep 50 percent of proceeds. If the local agency turns the case over to federal law enforcement agencies, it can keep 80 percent of proceeds.
A 2010 report from the Institute for Justice described it as “policing for profit.”
Gamble pointed to the case of Beverly Greer as an example of the excesses the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws have created. The state Department of Justice would oversee the statewide database.
In 2010, Greer’s son was arrested by the Brown County Drug Task Force, which informed Greer her son’s bail would have to be paid in cash, even though nothing in Wisconsin law required this.
Greer had difficulty raising the necessary $7,500, but when she finally showed up at the jail with the money, jail officials alerted the task force.
Task force officers had a drug dog sniff the bail money, and when the dog indicated it smelled drug residue, they seized the bail money.
“Any money that’s in circulation for more than 90 days is going to have drug residue on it. Police dogs will alert on it,” Gamble said.
Greer wasn’t the only person in Brown County to have bail money seized, but she was one of the few to get an attorney and successfully challenge the seizure in court.
The reform measure pending in the Legislature also mandates that law enforcement agencies—from municipalities to the state—report how much they have seized in the forfeiture process.
And the bill makes forfeitures proportionate with the convicted crime. There have been cases in Wisconsin, and elsewhere, involving seizures of vehicles and other property that were worth significantly more than the value of the penalty fees assessed in the crime.
Law enforcement agencies are pushing back on the reform movement, asserting that asset forfeiture laws are an effective tool to go after the assets of a criminal and help offset the costs of taxpayers.
But Gamble said there are too many cases of abuse. It’s an overall effort to give more power to police and take away constitutional rights of citizens, and the Republican-led majority in Wisconsin’s Legislature is leading those initiatives to get tougher on crime, Gamble said.
“These Republicans are passing some scary stuff,” he said.