Sunshine in Wyoming’s civil forfeiture

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Transparency in civil forfeiture took a small step forward last week when the Wyoming Liberty Group published its latest report.

One difficulty in writing about civil forfeiture is that its details are often shrouded in secrecy. Sometimes open-records requests allow us to figure out what law enforcement officials are doing when they take people’s stuff without a trial: the Competitive Enterprise Institute has published reports that explain the nature and scope of seizure and forfeiture in seven different states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, and Tennessee) – the only states that we were able to get public records for. We were pleased to see that the hard work of Steve Klein, a D.C. lawyer and a Wyoming Liberty Group associate, resulted in transparency for an eighth state, Wyoming.

To some extent, there is a lack of precision in the Wyoming Liberty Group’s findings. That isn’t their fault: it’s the fault of the attorney general’s office, which failed to carry out its obligation to compile and submit public data for some years. The report, wonderfully titled “Civil Forfeiture in Wyoming: Cash by Incomplete Numbers, 2018-2022,” provides a necessarily incomplete look at the civil forfeiture landscape. The difficulty is that some years are covered, and some years aren’t: nonetheless, even though a lot of data for 2019 and 2020 is missing, the reader can get a pretty good idea of the nature of forfeiture in Wyoming.

The bottom line is that what is true in the seven states that CEI surveyed is also true in Wyoming: namely, the idea that a typical forfeiture of cash is $100,000, or $200,000, or more is just false. The best inference to draw from the available facts is that the typical (median) forfeiture in Wyoming from 2018-2022 was just under $2,800. This is roughly consistent with CEI’s research in the seven other states, which found a median forfeiture size ranging from $672 to $2182. Things are apparently a little bigger in Wyoming.

Assuming that state government officials decide to comply with the law in the future, we’ll get more and more evidence that civil forfeiture is largely exercised against those who have never been proven guilty of any crime. Of course, this assumes that carrying cash, as such, is not a crime. It’s a hard lesson for some in the law enforcement community to accept.