News Story

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms Head to the Governor

Bills take first step toward reining in potential law enforcement abuse

The Michigan state Senate unanimously passed a seven-bill package on Wednesday to require more transparency, and a higher standard of evidence before law enforcement agencies can take ownership of seized cash and property alleged to have been obtained illegally. The bills have already passed the House and with this vote are now heading to Gov. Rick Snyder.

The bills do not affect initial property seizures by police, but what happens to the property afterwards. They reform the process of the government taking ownership of seized property, called forfeiture, in two ways:

First, they require a higher legal standard of "clear and convincing" evidence that property represents the proceeds of criminal acts before an agency can take ownership. Under current law, prosecutors must only meet a far less stringent “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

Second, government entities across the state would have to submit annual reports to the Michigan State Police on property seizures and forfeitures. The State Police would then assemble the information into an annual report posted on their website.

“I think this is a step in the right direction and one toward allowing our laws to be enforced while also protecting due process, the personal rights and the property rights of individuals,” said Rep. Klint Kesto, R- Walled Lake, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and sponsor of one bill in the package. “Under this legislation we - the public - will be able to see and keep track of what has been forfeited.”

Sen. Rick Jones, R- Grand Ledge, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that the various groups that backed the bill package represented an unusual coalition.

“This legislation was quite unique,” Jones said. “Both the far left and the far right supported it. I was glad to see it pass unanimously and I fully expect to see the governor sign it into law.”

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, American Civil Liberties Union, and Attorney General Bill Schuette were among those who expressed support for the reforms.

State and local law enforcement agencies have collected at least $250 million since 2000, bringing in more than $24 million in 2013 alone. There have been allegations that some forfeitures appear motivated more by a quest for revenue than public safety.

Pressure to reform asset forfeiture laws has grown in recent years, and Michigan is among the states considered by reformers to need it the most. At this time New Mexico has enacted the most comprehensive reform, requiring an actual conviction before a person's property can be forfeited to the government.

The legislation includes five bills amending various law enforcement-related statutes to establish the transparency and reporting requirements; and two others that increase the burden of proof for forfeiture from a “preponderance of the evidence” standard to "clear and convincing evidence.”

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.