Law sets new procedures for seizing property of suspected drug offenders in Wyoming

Apr 26, 2016 By Christina George, Staff Writer

There will soon be new guidelines for seizure and forfeiture of assets suspected of being involved in controlled substance violations.

After several attempts spanning the last two legislative sessions, the Wyoming Legislature this year passed a bill stipulating additional notice and procedural safeguards on property subject to forfeiture.

Fremont County Attorney Pat LeBrun called the new law appropriate.

"The state is required to prove that the assets were obtained illegally," he said. "If the state cannot prove the assets were obtained illegally, the state cannot seize. Quite simple."

LeBrun said he's seen asset forfeiture from time to time, but noted it doesn't happen often.

"It almost never happens in cases where there isn't a criminal conviction," he said. "At least with matters that involve state jurisdiction, I cannot even think of a forfeiture where there wasn't a conviction."

Under current law, property can be seized if probable cause exists tying the property to drug crimes. The new legislation, which goes into effect July 1, requires there be a hearing in circuit court within 30 days of when the property is seized to determine if there's probable cause before forfeiture actions can be filed.

The bill was sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Committee chaired by State Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton.

Miller brought forth his own asset forfeiture bill that would have required a conviction before property could be seized. His bill failed in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

He said the successful bill improves the law, but he would've preferred his proposal.

"I and some others were pretty adamant that we think people have a right to their things and that law enforcement can't take your stuff without even so much as accusing you of something," he said.

"Some of us still have a problem with that, but again, the bill we passed is a vast improvement, so we are very happy about that."

Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker said he couldn't see law enforcement taking away property without probable cause.

"The people who are losing property or money in a forfeiture are what we call 'bad guys,' and there's a pretty clear-cut process that would protect the innocent person who is driving down the highway with $10,000 cash," Hornecker said. "Law enforcement doesn't walk up to a vehicle and ask about cash. It's usually an extension to the initial traffic stop."

Hornecker said he's pleased with the new law.

"I think we can work with it. It doesn't seem to handicap us to the point where we still can't deal with a traffic stop with half a million dollars the driver has no clue whose it is," he said.

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