The Senate declined Friday to override Gov. Matt Mead’s veto of a bill that would have limited police authority to seize assets suspected of being used in drug trafficking.
Despite voting overwhelmingly to pass Senate File 14 earlier in the session, only seven Senators voted to override Mead’s veto of the bill. A successful override requires a two-thirds vote in both Houses.
The bill would have drastically limited police seizure of assets that are potentially involved in drug trafficking. Under the bill, defendants’ assets could only be seized if, and when, they are convicted of a felony.
Police in Wyoming can seize cash, cars, and other property without a warrant or a conviction if they merely suspect the owner is using the property in trafficking illegal drugs. Assets are returned only in rare cases where the claimant successfully challenges the state’s seizure.
The Wyoming Liberty Group championed the bill. “This law is supposed to help the police fight drug trafficking, but it can be used against innocent people far too easily,” Wyoming Liberty Group attorney and lobbyist Steve Klein said in a statement.
Klein’s review of cases showed seizures are usually about $2,000 in value, not enough to justify hiring an attorney to fight the case. Getting property back from the state after a seizure can take months, he said.
“Civil forfeiture has been terribly abused in some states, and Wyoming should be proud it’s not one of them,” Klein said. “However, our law should ensure that can never happen here by adding protections for property owners and implementing strict oversight of the process.”
Law enforcement officials, including Department of Criminal Investigation director Steve Woodson, lobbied against the bill, arguing no change is needed.
The Joint Judiciary Committee sponsored SF 14, which won 26-3 approval from the Senate and a 54-6 vote from the House. It was the first bill to pass the Legislature this year. In his veto message to the Senate, Gov. Mead said police in Wyoming have not abused the power to seize assets, but he admitted the authority has been abused in other states.
“Those who speak against civil forfeiture have combed through Wyoming’s forfeiture files and analyzed many hundreds of cases,” Mead said. “They have not found an egregious case or one abuse of law or of individual rights in a 40-year history.”
Mead, a former U.S. Attorney for Wyoming and prosecutor on federal drug cases, said forfeiture is a good policy for fighting drug trafficking. “Asset forfeiture has a number of benefits — one of the most important, in my view, being taking the profit out of illegal drugs,” Mead said. “Crime should not pay, especially drug crime.”
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), who is a Wyoming Liberty Group board member, spoke in favor of the SF 14 before Friday’s failed vote to override Mead’s veto. He questioned the constitutionality of asset forfeiture, citing Wyoming’s constitutional provisions relating to search and seizure:
Article 1. Sec. 4. Security against search and seizure.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated…
Article 1. Sec. 6. Due process of law.
No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) warned of the seriousness of a veto override, but said he was not directly dissuading his colleagues from voting for the override.
“If you are going to override the governor’s veto, it has to be something that you feel very strongly about,” Bebout said. “If we have strong feelings about an issue we should step up.”
Sen. Tony Ross (R-Cheyenne) urged Senators to vote against the override, saying the Legislature could come back in future sessions to “fix” the bill. “I would urge you to use some caution here,” Ross said. “Is this the fight that you really want to have?”
During the roll call vote several senators initially supported the override, then switched their votes when they saw it wouldn’t gain the two-thirds majority needed. Those switching votes included: Sens. Bebout, Paul Barnard (R-Evanston), Jim Anderson (R-Casper), Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), and Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower).
After the vote, Gov. Mead commended the work of the Legislature on the issue and pledged to work to improve the law in the future. “I commit to work with the Committee and the Legislature on this matter in the interim so we can come back next year with a bill that addresses concerns and leaves law enforcement with the necessary tools to do its work,” Mead said in a statement.
Members of the House expressed their disappointment at the Senate’s failure to override.
Calls for overriding the veto came not only from lawmakers, but from the Casper Star-Tribune editorial board. The support for reforming forfeiture in Wyoming comes on the heels of United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s call in January for states to curtail the use of federal laws to justify asset forfeiture.
Forfeiture policies were created as part of the war on drugs. Nationwide, the Washington Post found that the states have seized $2.5 billion in assets since 2001 without issuing warrants or indictments. Under a program called equitable sharing, local police can keep 80 percent of seized assets, and pass the rest on to federal agencies.
Wyoming authorities have used forfeiture to seize hundreds of thousands of dollars of property in Wyoming in just the past few years. An Attorney General’s record requested by the Wyoming Liberty Group found that the state seized $211,000, and refunded $18,000 to claimants during 2012. In 2013, the state seized $820,000, and returned $4,000 to claimants.
The Legislature only attempts to override vetoes in rare cases where a bill has broad support, and the measure centers on a constitutional issue. For some Lawmakers, that was the case for SF 14. Likewise, Gov. Mead has rarely used his veto power to scuttle an entire bill. During his first term from 2011-2014 he used line-item vetoes, most often to change budget provisions he didn’t like.
In 2013 Mead vetoed House Bill 237 that would have expanded the reasons for which employers could fire workers for misconduct. The bill would have allowed employers to not enroll some fired workers on unemployment, allowing businesses to avoid increased payments to the state unemployment program.
“Vetoes in Wyoming are very rare and have generally been limited to bills that have some kind of constitutional legal problem,” said long-time lobbyist and Holland & Hart attorney Larry Wolfe. “I can’t remember a showdown veto where the Legislature was at odds with the Governor.”
University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts said the most well-known example of a successful veto override occurred under Gov. Mike Sullivan (D) in 1991. The Legislature overturned Sullivan’s veto on a bill allowing the state party to nominate replacements for a U.S. Senator who dies in office. Previously the Governor had the authority to appoint interim senators from either party until the next election.
Attorney General Letter Supporting Current Asset Forfeiture Law