The issue of rules that allow law-enforcement agencies to confiscate cash or other property during an investigation has drawn attention recently.
Such confiscations are often allowed even if no criminal charges are ever filed, and those losing the property must go to court to get their property.
For lawmakers in one state, however, those laws have gone too far.
The Institute for Justice is reporting lawmakers in Wyoming have banned the practice by officers of “badgering” drivers stopped on traffic infractions to sign pre-written waivers transferring title to property, including cash.
The bill, “Roadside waiver of property rights prohibited,” was signed recently by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
It states plainly, “A law enforcement officer may not request, require, or in any manner induce any person to execute a document purporting to waive, for purpose of forfeiture under this section, the person’s interest in or rights to property seized.”
It also states any such document “is null and void.”
And finally, it allows confiscation “after a hearing and a finding of probable cause as required” by the law.
IJ said that previously, “during traffic stops, officers have badgered drivers into signing pre-written waivers that not only waive their rights to their property, but also waive their right to the limited protections offered by the state’s civil forfeiture laws.”
Wyoming’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Charles Pelkey, puts the state in the company of just two others, Texas and Virginia, that have similar bans.
“Due process doesn’t happen on the side of a road and we’re pleased to see Wyoming ban this abusive tactic,” said Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban. “But the state’s civil forfeiture laws remained unchanged, and still need major reform. No one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime.”
IJ reported the law was in response to a case in which Wisconsin musician Phil Parhamovich had his “entire life savings” of $91,800 seized by highway patrol officers.
He was stopped for not wearing a seat belt. The officers searched his vehicle and found his savings, which he intended to use as down payment on a recording studio, hidden in a speaker.
“After aggressively interrogating Phil, and while still on the side of the interstate, officers pressured him to sign a waiver form ‘giving’ them his money,” IJ reported.
The organization described that waiver as “bizarre.”
It stated: “I … the owner of the property or currency described below, desire to give this property or currency, along with any and all interests and ownership that I may have in it, to the State of Wyoming, Division of Criminal Investigation, to be used for narcotics law enforcement purposes.”
Aside from a $25 ticket for not wearing his seatbelt, Parhamovich was never charged with any crime.
He spent months trying to recover his funds then worked with IJ on the case.
“Just hours after his case went public, a Wyoming judge ordered the state to return all of Phil’s money,” IJ reported.
“It’s a great relief to know that no one will have to go through what I went through,” Parhamovich said. “Obviously our police system is in need of many reforms but this is a step in the right direction.”
WND has reported on the move against the state allowances for forfeiture before a conviction.
A year ago, Ohio adopted a law that requires criminal charges be filed before police can take an individual’s assets.
“Reducing perverse economic incentives, the new law prohibits local governments from using the U.S. Department of Justice’s ‘equitable sharing’ program as a loophole to bypass constitutional protections on property rights in most cases, while still allowing government law enforcement agents to perform their duties and protect people,” said Jesse Hathaway, a research fellow and budget-tax expert at the institute.
“Government law enforcement should not be financially motivated, but motivated by a desire to protect and serve taxpayers. Civil asset forfeiture creates an economic incentive to engage in the forfeiture process, perverting the law. This measure reduces that incentive to do wrong and will help protect against the possibility of abuse,” Hathaway said.