The Wisconsin legislature is poised to make it a lot harder for the government to seize your property without a conviction, as lawmakers debate much needed reforms to the process of civil asset forfeiture this session. Civil asset forfeiture – a tool used by police to seize property without charging the owner with a crime – has come under fire in recent years due to its intrusion on our civil liberties, its disproportionate impact on Hispanics and minorities, and the perverse incentives it places on police departments.
“Civil asset forfeiture reform is an important step to ensure that no person is, ‘deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law’ as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment,” said Sen. Dave Craig, who is sponsoring the bill. “Criminal justice policy should focus on punishing the convicted, not raising revenue. Our bill accomplishes that.”
The bill would tackle some of the key issues with civil asset forfeiture that have made it such a problem in the Badger State. First of all, no longer will police be able to seize property from innocent people without charging them with a crime. Under the new law, forfeitures must be tied to a criminal conviction to proceed, and must be proportional to the crime committed. If someone is arrested for drug possession, only materials involved in the crime in the strict sense will be subject to forfeit. It will no longer be so easy for the police to seize their entire car or home for minor offenses.
It’s no surprise that groups like the Sheriffs Association and the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association would try to put the brakes on the bill. Civil asset forfeiture can create a strong incentive to indiscriminately seize property regardless of whether the victim is guilty or not. Instead of allowing departments to pocket the cash proceeding from seizures, this bill would require the money be deposited in the state’s school fund, as intended by the Wisconsin Constitution. Currently, some Wisconsin police are keeping a portion of the proceedings, which has the unintended consequence of tempting police to seize goods unnecessarily, simply to fund their offices. Down in Texas, one police department even used proceeds from civil asset forfeiture to purchase a margarita machine. In a free society, we should expect the police to our liberties and uphold the rule of law, not avail themselves of legal loopholes for personal gain.
Not only does civil asset forfeiture place perverse incentives on police to seize property without reason, civil asset forfeiture has been shown to disproportionately impact Hispanics, who are statistically more likely to have their property taken by the police – even when they have committed no crime. Whatever the underlying cause of this racial disparity, it should be a wakeup call to policymakers that the criminal justice system is driving inequality between the Hispanic community and the rest of the nation.
The last time the legislature attempted to pass this reform, the measure failed. This time, it is vital that advocates show their support.
The legislature should be applauded for this vital effort to reform civil asset forfeiture. Switching to a system of criminal asset forfeiture – where the owner must be convicted of a crime before the goods can be taken – would be an enormous step in the right direction. Forcing proceeds to go to the school fund instead of directly to police departments is also a game changer. Any one of these reforms would be a significant improvement on the current system of seizure without charges, convictions, or repercussions for those involved.