CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal from a man who contends it was unconstitutional for the state to seize $470,000 in cash from him and then seek to forfeit it on the grounds that it was drug money, all without charging him with a crime.
Chief Justice E. James Burke on Tuesday dismissed an appeal from Robert Miller of Des Plaines, Illinois.
Authorities say a state trooper seized the cash after pulling Miller over in 2013 for speeding on Interstate 80 in far western Wyoming.
The state never charged Miller with a crime and waited about a year to bring a civil court action to forfeit the money under the state’s Controlled Substances Act, asserting that the cash was related to the illegal drug trade.
State District Judge Joseph B. Bluemel early this year denied a request from Miller to dismiss the forfeiture case on the grounds that the state was violating his constitutional rights. Miller appealed that decision to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but Burke ruled this week that the appeal was improper because the entire forfeiture case hasn’t wrapped up yet in Bluemel’s court.
Attempts to reach David Michael, Miller’s San Francisco lawyer, for comment on the dismissal were not immediately successful Tuesday. Attempts to reach a lawyer with the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office pressing the forfeiture case also weren’t successful.
In an interview last year, Michael declined to discuss specifics of Miller’s case or comment on why he was carrying so much cash. However, Michael said the U.S. Constitution requires that people receive notice and an opportunity to be heard as quickly as possible when the government seizes their property.
In legal filings, Miller’s lawyers have asserted that the cash was derived from unspecified legitimate activities.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead in 2015 vetoed a bill passed by the state Legislature that would have required the state to secure a criminal conviction first before seeking to forfeit cash and other property it believes may have been involved in illegal activity. Mead, a former state and federal prosecutor, said in his veto message that he was satisfied the forfeiture process was working well in the state.
Mead earlier this year signed into law a compromise bill that requires the state attorney general to review all seizures performed after July 1 to decide if they were justified. The AG then has 30 days to ask a judge to determine if there was probable cause that the property was involved in the drug trade, a necessary step before the state may file a civil case to forfeit the property.
State Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, is a criminal defense lawyer and represents people in civil asset forfeiture cases in courts around the state. He sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which has considered the recent proposals to change state law.
Pelkey said Wednesday he won’t sponsor another bill to try to require a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases.
“If you pass a bill that the governor’s already vetoed, you’re just making a statement,” Pelkey said. “We’ve got more important stuff to do than posture and preen over stuff that is pretty much settled.”