A civil asset forfeiture reform movement has taken root nationally, including in Wisconsin.
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.
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