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Cops, Kleefisch killed civil asset forfeiture reform bill

By   /   March 2, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – After what appeared to be strong bipartisan support for civil asset forfeiture reform, the legislation has died on the vine.

Assembly Bill 537 succumbed to a committee chairman who openly loathed it, and will not get a hearing in the Senate’s Labor and Government Reform Committee.

State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, chairman of the Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, did not like the reform bill, which would provide protections against law enforcement seizure of private property.

“Joel very much does not support the bill,” said Ashlee Moore, Kleefisch’s chief of staff.

Toward the end of last month’s rapid-fire Assembly winter session, before representatives moved from lawmaking to campaigning, the bill was transferred from the recalcitrant Kleefisch’ Criminal Justice Committee to the Assembly Rules committee.

Photo by FreedomWorks

DEAD LEGISLATION: Reform of Wisconsin’s civil asset forfeiture law will have to wait until next year after pressure from the law enforcement community cooled support of the bipartisan measure.

By then, there just wasn’t enough time to move the bill along before the Assembly closed up shop, according to Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

“The Speaker intends on bringing up the legislation next session. There wasn’t enough time to get it done,” she said.

What happened?

Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said the law enforcement community lobbied hard against the reform measure, framing the bill as “anti-police.”

Mikalsen said the Assembly appeared to have the votes before a campaign of “misinformation” by the Sheriffs Association, the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, and district attorneys.

“It won’t be able to move forward this year because the assembly did not take up its version,” he said. Nass is chairman of the Senate Labor and Government Reform Committee, where the Senate version of the bill stalled. “The Senate doesn’t like to vote on bill if the Assembly doesn’t take it up.

“At this point it is dead.”

Dead despite Democrats and liberty conservatives who lined up in support of the reform bill. Dead despite disparate groups like the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty and the Wisconsin branch of the American Civil Liberties Union standing together in the civil asset forfeiture reform crusade.

“The pro-law enforcement organization groups succeeded in turning some of our supposedly conservative allies,” said Larry Gamble, spokesman for Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, a nonpartisan constitution advocacy organization. “Attorney General (Brad) Schimel and the alphabet soup of law enforcement organization groups came out against it as expected.”

A big reason for the pushback deals with the fundamental problem with civil asset forfeiture laws: Law enforcement agencies have come to rely on the sale of those assets to help finance their operations.

“They are adamant about keeping those resources,” Mikalsen said.

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.

In Wisconsin, police agencies are allowed to keep 50 percent of proceeds. If the local agency turns the case over to federal law enforcement agencies, it can keep 80 percent of proceeds.

Civil asset forfeiture laws exist in most states and the federal government also has a version of the laws.

A 2010 report from the Institute for Justice described it as “policing for profit.”

RELATED: Bill aims to curb law enforcement money grabs in Wisconsin

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

Gamble said the Wisconsin proposals went a long way in ending law enforcement’s presumption of guilt.

Mikalsen said law enforcement agencies have raised legitimate concerns about not having ready cash available for undercover drug buys should the civil asset forfeiture money dry up. But the constitutional concerns that have arisen over the past 15 years cannot play a secondary role to policing expediency, the legislative aide said.

“It is stunning to a lot of people that it is possible under Wisconsin law for people to lose their property without ever having been convicted of a crime,” he said.

While the reform initiative is legislatively dead this year, like Vos, Nass plans to regroup and bring the legislation back next year.

“At this point, we are working on minor tweaks and changes,” Mikalsen said. “Our goal is, because there was so much momentum, to get that bill out in January when we come back.”

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.