News Story

Different Parties, Same Conclusion on Civil Asset Forfeitures: Reform It

'The bipartisanship is real'

With the conclusion of the 2013-2014 Legislature, the clock has run out on bills that would have required more disclosure by law enforcement agencies on their civil asset seizures and forfeitures.

The measures had been championed by two House members from opposing parties who think it’s time to put party differences aside and reform Michigan's laws in this area.

State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, and Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, worked together during the past session to craft legislation (House Bills 5250, 5251, 5252, and 5081) that would have required law enforcement agencies to file annual reports on their own property seizures.

“We’re taking $20 million a year from citizens,” said Irwin, who adds he is bothered by the fact that there is little to no information about these cases, including whether any charges were filed and what happened to the money and property that was seized.

“I think it’s a lot more than $20 million (a year). It’s self-reported, and some do not report,” McMillin said.

According to a 2014 Michigan State Police report, since 2000 Michigan governments have collected more than $250 million in forfeiture revenue. The report reveals that 86 percent of asset forfeitures during the previous year were for alleged administrative violations, not criminal offenses. It also acknowledges shortcomings in public records, stating “not all entities reported,” and “many asset forfeiture proceedings involve multiple agencies and a portion may have been inadvertently left out due to a misunderstanding of which agency would report the asset forfeiture.”

Irwin and McMillin believe all law enforcement agencies should be required to report how many forfeiture proceedings they participated in, what was taken and how much the property was worth. Bills they co-sponsored also would have required the reports to contain details of the alleged violation that led to each seizure, when the assets were taken, whether the owner was ever charged with a crime, and if charged, convicted.

“When I talk to law enforcement I say, it behooves you to really be up front and be transparent about this stuff ... because it doesn’t look good,” McMillin said.

“The public wants to have good relations with the police and the police want to serve us appropriately, and in order to do that we have to restore right relationships. We have to get back on a constitutional framework where the public knows what law enforcement is doing is fair, legal and in accordance with the Constitution,” Irwin said.

Irwin and McMillin watched a video posted on Michigan Capitol Confidential on Dec. 3, which detailed the plight of two residents whose assets were seized before being charged with crimes. In one case, the owner of property seized and held for more than a year was finally informed his belongings would be returned if he paid $5,000.

In the other case, state police held seized property and ordered bank accounts frozen until the day the video went public two months later, when the owner was charged with medical marijuana law violations. Irwin and McMillin say these cases are similar to others they’ve heard.

The legislation requiring more disclosures had been reported out of a House committee last June, but then stalled in the full House. McMillin, who is completing his final term under Michigan's term limits law, said he has been in contact with newly elected Republicans to inform them on the issue.

“We have a lot of 'tea party' liberty kind of folks coming in and I’ve already made sure to introduce them and talk to [them about] working with Jeff Irwin ... (because) these are the kind of issues where ... the bipartisanship is real," McMillin said. "There is a principle here and you get passionate about it.”

“Rep. McMillin’s bill is really the first, obvious step that any responsive government would take to account for what we’re doing,” said Irwin. He adds that he has reached out to his fellow Democrats, along with Republicans, to come together of the issue.

“I’m most concerned about compromising the Constitution," he added. "In America we have a long tradition that you’re suppose to face your accuser. So if law enforcement is relying on information that they can’t bring into court, I think that is problematic.”

The Michigan State Police opposed the reform legislation, with a spokesperson telling a House Committee that the agency was concerned reporting requirements could compromise confidentiality in investigations. The Michigan State Police has declined to comment further on the matter.

McMillin says he believes that argument is a straw man. The legislation was amended in committee so that the required disclosures would apply only to proceedings that had been finalized for purposes of appeal.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.