House overwhelmingly approves eight bills
House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a package of bills that will improve uniformity, transparency and accountability for the practice of civil asset forfeiture in Michigan and raise the burden of proof in cases from “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing.” Another bill prohibits police from seizing cars in possession cases of one ounce or less of marijuana. There were eight bills in total (HB 4499, 4500,4503, 4504,4505, 4506, 4507,4508) and all except 4508, the bill protecting vehicles in marijuana possession, passed by 100 or more votes.
Sponsors of reform were encouraged by the strength of passage and think that will bid well for favorable reception in the Michigan Senate.
“I think I did my diligence as chair of the Judiciary Committee (which reviewed the bills initially). I was a prosecutor and did forfeiture cases. I had contacts and got their input and knew the issues,” said Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, who sponsored one of the bills, HB 4504.
“As far back as the Ten Commandments and 'thou shalt not steal,' private property rights has been a defining value in the Judeo Christian ethic. These bills are all about protecting property rights,” said Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, who sponsored HB 4499.
Also in favor of the bills was Rep. Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt Township, a former drug prosecutor in Flint.
“I never witnessed abuse but always questioned where it could happen. Anytime you have a system in place that doesn’t have heightened scrutiny in place and it is not transparent, it opens the door for abuse. Today was a great step and huge victory for the people of Michigan,” Leonard said.
The bills do not end civil asset forfeiture altogether. But Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who sponsored the bill on vehicle seizures in marijuana cases, supports such a change. He believes the current bills are a good first step.
“We are leading toward meaningful reform. We are targeting the worst abuses and for now I think this is a responsible way to approach this,” Irwin said.
Kesto thinks once more stringent and uniform reporting requirements in place, lawmakers will have a better idea how far they need to go in protecting private property.
“Once you start gathering the data, you can analyze it. And once it is clear and you have consistent reporting, then we can look at the data and do this better,” Kesto said.
He says currently there is no way to verify what has been seized and forfeited. Police may deny seizing all property claimed by individuals because there is no documentation.
Leonard also voted for the bill.
The main bill, House Bill 4504, creates the Uniform Forfeiture Reporting Act, which requires all police agencies to report the number of forfeiture proceedings, their status, an inventory list, the date and value of property seized and its final disposition. The Michigan State Police would compile this information each year and post the data on its website.
Irwin believes that with stricter reporting requirements, police may think twice about what is forfeited and why.
“I think there is going to be some self-correction. This can have a big impact on the potential to protect the injured, just like we saw in body cameras on police in California,” said Irwin.
Michigan scored a “D minus” in a 2010 review in civil asset forfeiture laws by the Institute of Justice. The institute testified in support of the bills, as did the ACLU, the National Federation of Independent Business, Michigan Moms United, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).