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New WI law limits police ability to seize cash

Wisconsin lawmakers recently passed a new civil forfeiture law.

What is civil forfeiture? Civil forfeiture is essentially the ability of police officers to seize cash from those who are suspected of criminal activity. Officers will seize property based on this legal theory in an effort to end criminal activity. Although this seems like a noble practice, the reality of civil forfeiture has raised questions.

As noted in a recent piece in The Washington Post, enforcement officers often confiscate small amounts of cash during traffic stops “under flimsy pretenses.” Although the amounts seized are small, the regularity of the practice translates to big money. Officers took over $5 billion from individuals in federal seizures in 2014. It was not uncommon for officers to seize property from individuals that never faced criminal charges.

What has changed? Wisconsin’s new law shifts the burden needed for the forfeiture. Originally, the accused would need to establish his or her innocence to avoid civil forfeiture. The new law shifts this burden to the state. In order for officers to move forward with forfeiture of property, the owner must first be convicted of a crime related to the forfeiture action.

It is important to note that although the new law aims to fix many of the issues with forfeiture, problems remain. A property owner must promptly challenge any unlawful seizure. A failure to do within nine months can result in a permanent loss of property. The law also allows officers to keep any property if the owner flees the jurisdiction. This includes those who live outside the jurisdiction and return home after the seizure.  

Civil forfeiture is just one legal issue within the criminal justice system that those facing criminal charges must navigate. It is wise for those facing criminal charges to seek legal counsel to help navigate this and many other legal issues that arise while fighting to maintain your innocence.

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