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Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Advances in Michigan Legislature

April 4, 2019

Proposed law would require probable cause for civil asset forfeiture

Bipartisan legislation to reform civil asset forfeiture procedures has been passed by both houses of the Michigan State Legislature.

The state Senate passed S.B. 2, sponsored by Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township), which would require officers to show probable cause before seizing a suspect’s assets and to return the assets if the individual is not convicted of a crime. The law would apply to seized money or property valued at less than $50,000. The bill passed the Senate on February 13.

H.B. 4001 and H.B. 4002, sponsored by Reps. Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) and David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), respectively, have provisions similar to the Senate bill but are not identical to it. Both House bills passed on February 28.

The state House and Senate must approve a final bill with identical language before it can be sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her approval.

Transferring Assets to Government

Civil asset forfeiture can take the property of innocent people, says Jarrett Skorup, director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“Civil asset forfeiture is the process by which law enforcement transfers assets linked to criminal activity from people to the government,” said Skorup.

“In theory, this is supposed to transfer illegal proceeds, but in practice, because most states do not require a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture, it can ensnare the assets of innocent people,” Skorup said.

“The bills being debated in Michigan would require a criminal conviction or a person abandoning their property prior to prosecutors being able to forfeit it,” said Skorup. “This will do a better job of protecting the rights of individuals.”

Most Taken Without Convictions

Michigan State Police data for 2017 show the use of asset forfeiture is extensive in the state, Skorup and Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel for the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in The Detroit Free Press.

“In 2017, the latest year we have data, law enforcement agencies across the state took more than $13 million in cash or property from Michigan residents,” Skorup and Buddin write.

“For the majority of the more than 6,000 forfeiture cases, assets were taken from people who were never convicted of a crime,” Skorup and Buddin write. “And in about 1,000 of those cases, 736 people were never charged, and 220 were found not guilty.”

Eliminating Civil Asset Forfeiture

Michigan and other states should consider further reforms, says Skorup.

“This is a good reform, but Michigan and all other states should consider eliminating civil asset forfeiture and establishing a criminal asset forfeiture system,” said Skorup.

Requiring a conviction before assets are forfeited would eliminate the incentive under civil forfeiture for officials to seize property because law enforcement agencies often share in the proceeds when they are sold, says Matthew Glans, a senior policy analyst at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“Assets should be seized only when they are used for criminal reasons, and law enforcement should not have incentives to seize any more property than is necessary and justified,” said Glans.

Owen Macaulay (omacaulay@hillsdale.edu) writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.

Internet Info:

Jarrett Skorup and Kimberly Buddin, “Here's one reform that GOP, Democrats can agree on in 2019,” The Detroit Free Press, January 10, 2019:

https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2019/01/10/civil-asset-forfeiture-michigan/2392650002/

Author
Owen Macaulay writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.
omacaulay@hillsdale.edu