Rejecting a request by the Police Department and the city's lobbying office, the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously voted to support state legislation that would require criminal convictions in most cases before law enforcement can snatch up defendants' property in asset forfeiture proceedings.
Existing asset forfeiture law allows police agencies to seize property they believe was used directly or indirectly in a crime, even if the person who owns the property is not convicted of any crime.
In voting to support the reform bill, four aldermen reversed the position they took earlier at a committee meeting.
The pending reform bill also would would require all funding derived through forfeitures be turned over to a state school fund, though it would allow law enforcement to use seized cars for a limited time. The bill also would allow law enforcement to be reimbursed through forfeited funds for the costs of the seizure.
The law now allows law enforcement to share in the bounty they seize, a practice that Ald. Nik Kovac called a "moral hazard."
If you know you get to spend money that you seize, he said, "you're more likely to seize that property."
The bill, sponsored by State. Sen. Robert Craig, has bipartisan support.
Earlier, Danielle Decker, a city lobbyist, and representatives of the Police Department urged the council's Judiciary and Legislation Committee not to support asset forfeiture reform.
“It is unnecessary in this very restrictive budgetary climate to be limiting our options," Decker told the committee. "It would limit local control, as well, by prohibiting some options we have to partake in the federal program. We believe the program serves as a crime deterrent. It makes neighborhoods safer and communities safer and that it supports undercover vehicles that are a key tool in narcotics investigations.”
Decker did not provide any supporting evidence that asset forfeiture deters crime or makes neighborhoods safer.
Police Capt. Alex Ramirez also asserted, without providing evidence, that the asset forfeiture program helps deter crime. "It also gives us additional investigative tools we do use the money for. It's additional resource that we have that wouldn't be in the budget," he said.
Ramirez said that the existing asset forfeiture program is "not a win-win every time. There is a process that happens in the court where the defendant, the arrestee, has an opportunity to challenge the seizure and that does happen on a regular basis. .... and there are times when it's awarded and there are many times when it's not awarded."
A review of 43 Milwaukee Police Department asset forfeiture cases reviewed by Circuit Court judges last year show that at least 30 resulted in default judgments against the defendants, according to online state court records and information provided by the county's corporation counsel's office, which handles the forfeiture cases for law enforcement. Defaults occur when the defendants don't show up.
Only four cases could immediately be determined to be contested, with at least some seized property returned in three of them.
Since asset forfeiture cases are civil, defendants generally have to hire their own lawyers if they want to contest seizures. It is likely that many defendants can't afford to hire lawyers or that it would cost more to hire a lawyer than the seized property is worth.
At the committee level, alderment voted, 4-1, to support the Police Department and oppose civil asset forfeiture reform. Voting to oppose the bill were Ald. Michael Murphy, committee chair; and Aldermen Mark Borkowski, Cavalier Johnson, and Jose Perez. Ald. Robert Bauman voted against the Police Department's recommendation.
At the full council meeting, though, Kovac pushed for supporting reform, citing the story of Green Bay Packer Letroy Guion, whose $70,000 truck and $190,000 in cash were seized in Florida after police found marijuana and a gun in his vehicle. Guion, who pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and paid a $5,000 fine, had to fight to get his property back.
Kovack said he believed at least some of the aldermen who voted against reform actually supported it, but were confused.
The full council voted unanimously to support the reform bill.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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