News Story

Power to the People: 2015 Brought Some Key Reforms to Michigan

Bye-bye film subsidies, hello limits on improper or abusive police and prosecutor actions

During 2015, legislation was signed into law that secured some key public policy victories for the people of Michigan. Highlights include the elimination of costly subsidies for film producers and new laws that protect individuals from certain excessive or improper actions by police and prosecutors.

Death Sentence for Film Subsidies

On July 9, Gov. Rick Snyder signed House Bill 4122, which phases out Michigan’s film subsidy program. Launched in 2008, the subsidies transferred wealth from Michigan taxpayers to film producers, many of whom did not even reside here. According to federal employment statistics, after spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on the subsidies, Michigan actually had 102 fewer film industry jobs.

The road to repeal featured several false starts, stops and unexpected curves. In December 2014, the Legislature voted to keep the subsidies going by lifting a sunset provision that would have ended the program. Snyder signed the measure, which breathed new life into the subsidies.

But just 10 weeks into 2015, a newly elected House passed a bill to kill the program, which was sponsored by Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway. Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, initially indicated they had no interest in going along. But as winter turned to spring and an ill-fated road funding ballot measure (Proposal 1) failed to gain approval by even 20 percent of the electorate, something changed.

A poll released on May 20 showed 66 percent of Michigan voters supported redirecting $50 million allocated for film subsidies to roads. It also revealed that Michigan voters favored getting rid of the subsidies by a 60 to 29 percent margin. The poll was commissioned jointly by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Less than a month later, the Senate passed House Bill 4122 and three weeks after that it was signed into law. The measure (now officially Public Act 117 of 2015) prohibits the state film office and other relevant agencies from entering into any new film subsidy agreement or adding to existing ones. The money left over after the last subsidy deal is satisfied will revert to the state’s General Fund.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

On Oct. 20, Snyder signed into law a seven-bill package that begins to rein in the potential for government abuse in the area of civil asset forfeiture. The new laws 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.

Specifically, they require "clear and convincing" evidence that the seized property represents the proceeds of criminal acts before a law enforcement agency can take ownership of it. Under current law, prosecutors must only meet a far less stringent standard known as "preponderance of the evidence."

Second, government entities across the state will have to submit annual reports about property seizures and forfeitures to the Michigan State Police. The State Police will be required to assemble the information into an annual report posted on its website.

Michigan law enforcement agencies have collected more than $250 million in forfeiture revenue since 2000, with more than $24 million in cash and assets seized in 2013 alone. It has been alleged that part of the motivation for some forfeitures may have been primarily revenue rather than public safety.

Pressure to reform asset forfeiture laws has grown in recent years, and reform leaders consider Michigan to be among the states that need it the most. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Attorney General Bill Schuette were among those who expressed support for the reforms.

Criminal Justice Reform

On Dec. 22, Gov. Snyder signed House Bill 4713 into law. The new law, sponsored by Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, was drafted to prevent people who have no criminal intentions from being convicted of actions they did not know were illegal, including violations of complex regulatory regimes.

Under the measure (now Public Act 250 of 2015) a key standard used to define criminal liability is restored. That standard, "mens rea," is Latin for “the guilty mind.” It requires that unless a law specifically states otherwise, prosecutors must show that a defendant intended to break the law in order to get a conviction.

In recent years, as the number of regulatory crimes has increased, the concept of mens rea was consistently omitted from statutes, leaving people ensnared by laws they never meant to violate. The case of Allen Taylor, a Sparta business owner who became a criminal by expanding a parking lot into an area he didn’t realize was classified as a wetland, brought the issue into focus.

After Taylor was found guilty and ordered to pay $8,500 in fines and costs, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman asked the Legislature to clarify statutes that criminalize administrative offenses. House Bill 4713 was a response to Markman’s concerns. Both the ACLU and the Mackinac Center testified in favor of the change.

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.