Wisconsin Bill Would Greatly Expand Arrestable Offenses

By:  Ann Shibler
Wisconsin Bill Would Greatly Expand Arrestable Offenses

Wisconsin's AB 237 would make all civil forfeiture offenses into arrestable offenses.

Currently in the State of Wisconsin, as with most states, there are two types of violations of the laws: (1) criminal offenses which can involve arrest, being taken into custody, and a fine and/or jail time; and (2) noncriminal offenses which normally involve getting a citation usually with the choice of paying a civil forfeiture (a fine) or going to court.

Some examples of noncriminal offenses that are punishable only by civil forfeiture are things like speeding tickets, parking infractions or unpaid tickets, noise ordinance violations, campaign sign violations, pet leash laws, seat belt usage, child restraints, etc. But a Wisconsin Assistant Police Chief from Brookfield wants Wisconsin legislators to pass AB 237 which would convert all noncriminal offenses (that are punishable by civil forfeiture) into arrestable offenses.

The text of AB 237 is short and to the point, authorizing “arrests for activities punishable by civil forfeiture":

In addition to the arrest powers under S. 968.07, a law enforcement officer may arrest a person for a law violation that is punishable by a civil forfeiture if the arresting officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the person is violating or has violated the law.

Passage of AB 237 would constitute a vast extension of a policeman's discretion to arrest citizens. Many hitherto minor offenses, such as violating pet leash laws, seat belt laws, parking infractions, etc., would now be arrestable offenses.

Asst. Police Chief Dean Collins who testified at the legislature’s hearing on AB 237, accompanied by Rep. Joel Kleefisch who introduced the bill backed by many police organizations, claims a uniform criminal statute needs to be established that would ease decisions for law enforcement officers by making every offense, both criminal and civil forfeiture, an arrestable offense.

The well-spoken Chief believes sending an unsolicited fax should be a arrestable offense, along with disturbing human graves, fireworks violations and refusing to obey orders during an emergency. Improper use of lasers and flashlights, trespassing, theft of satellite cable programming, tattooing of children under 18, and mistreatment of animals (not exactly defined), he says also should be arrestable offenses.

Chief Collins might have betrayed the real reason for his wish to criminalize all civil infractions when he admitted that his department was sued in federal court for violating a woman’s civil rights after she was arrested for illegal transport of a firearm (open carry). His department lost the case because Collins said there was “no specific statutory authority to enforce state forfeitures.” So it appears he is trying to protect his department from costly misapplication and misunderstanding of police authority.

Wisconsin Carry, the organization that won the lawsuit against Chief Collins' police department, has stated recently:

[I]n the video testimony [in support of AB 237] from Asst. Chief Collins he makes the statement that if the legislature does not pass this bill there will be “nothing the police can do” to enforce civil forfeitures. This is also categorically false. Police will continue to be able to issue citations for fines in these situations. If those fines go unpaid,courts can and will continue to issue bench warrants for the arrest of the persons who do not pay their civil forfeiture. This procedure has worked very well throughout the history of our state.

Arrestable offenses should be kept to a minimum and other enforcement means — those that already exist, e.g., civil forfeiture — used whenever possible. Criminalization, arrest and jail should be reserved for the highest social wrongs. If Fido escapes out the back door and the neighbors call the police, arrest is ludicrous. Similarly, if one’s campaign sign is one foot too wide, society is not harmed, and one should not be arrested.

It’s an affront to the citizens of the Badger State to see their state legislature even considering such a proposal. Any attempt at converting every civil forfeiture offense into an arrestable offense is a serious legislative overreach.

Apparently the original sponsors of AB 237 are already feeling the heat of upset constituents. Representatives Farrow and Knilans, two of AB 237's original four coauthors in the Assembly, have already withdrawn as coauthors.

Residents of Wisconsin, you can contact your State Senator and State Representative (copies will also be sent to Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Becky Kleefisch) in opposition to making all civil forfeiture offenses into arrestable offenses in Wisconsin.

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