News Story

Asset Forfeiture Package of Bills a 'Solid First Step'

Citizens can have property seized by government under the lightest burden of proof

A civil liberties attorney with a public interest law firm told Michigan lawmakers on Tuesday that a package of bills they are considering is a "solid first step" toward reforming the practice of civil asset forfeiture in this state, and is within the mainstream of reforms being considered around the country.

Lee McGrath is the legislative counsel and managing attorney for the Minnesota office of the Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading advocate for civil asset forfeiture reform. His testimony to legislators came as they consider a five-bill reform package that includes House Bills 4500, 4503, 4504, 4506, and 4507.

McGrath told the Michigan House Judiciary Committee that IJ supports all the bills, and encouraged lawmakers to consider the lead of New Mexico, which eliminated civil asset forfeiture altogether. In New Mexico, the only way prosecutors can use forfeiture is after a criminal conviction, and even then, only if the property was acquired from the proceeds of a crime. McGrath told Michigan lawmakers that New Mexico was compelled to act after the public learned that a city attorney was advising law enforcement on the most valuable properties to seize.

In Michigan now, as was the case in New Mexico, prosecutors can invoke forfeiture under civil law using the lowest legal standard of proof, "the preponderance of evidence." In many cases, people lose property even when they have not been accused of a crime. Property seized from them remains in limbo until they pay a settlement or contest the case in civil court, which could incriminate them and cost untold amounts of money.

One of the bills under consideration would only allow asset forfeiture under criminal procedures, increasing the burden of proof to a more rigorous "clear and convincing" evidence standard. Another bill would establish stringent reporting requirements for police agencies, including detailed inventories of property taken and the disposition of criminal cases in each matter.

Committee Chair, Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, a former prosecutor, is the sponsor of one of the transparency bills. He asked McGrath what would happen if police found money and drugs together but had no suspect.

McGrath said the money could still be seized, and turned over to the Treasury Department's unclaimed property division.


Video of the House Judiciary hearing:

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.