MADISON, Wis. (Dec. 4, 2015) – A bill introduced in the Wisconsin House would reform asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state from taking property without a criminal conviction. The legislation also takes on federal forfeiture programs by banning prosecutors from circumventing state laws by passing cases off to the feds in most situations.
A bipartisan coalition of 15 representatives introduced Assembly Bill 537 (AB537) on Nov. 24. The legislation would change Wisconsin’s current law by requiring a criminal conviction before prosecutors could proceed with asset forfeiture. Under current law, the state can seize assets even if a person is never found guilty of a crime.
The bill would also retain the current requirement the proceeds from all forfeitures must go into the school fund. This provision curbs the policing for profit motive inherent in the current law.
ADDRESSES FEDERAL PROGRAMS
AB537 also closes a loophole that allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government under its Equitable Sharing forfeiture program.
The bill would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from transferring property to federal agents for forfeiture under federal law unless the value of the property exceeds $50,000, the property was seized in relation to an interstate crime, or if the property may only be forfeited under federal law
In other words. the legislation does not attempt to interfere with federally initiated forfeiture, but bans state and local police from passing off their cases to federal jurisdiction in most cases.
The inclusion of provisions barring state and local law enforcement agencies from passing off cases to the feds is particularly important. In several states with strict asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors have done just that. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass the need for a conviction under state law and collect 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program.
California prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have regularly utilized this loophole. As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government has inserted itself into the California’s asset forfeiture debate. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.
We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.
Asset forfeiture laws incentivize “policing for profit” on one hand, and dubious state-federal partnerships on the other.
AB537 was referred to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety where it will need to pass by a majority vote before moving on to the full House.