Bill Bringing State Closer To Ending Asset Forfeiture Abuse Advances in Michigan
House considers bill to require a conviction before police can take and keep a person’s property in most cases
The Michigan House Judiciary Committee voted 8-1 with one member voting present on Tuesday to advance to the full House the main bill of a civil asset forfeiture reform legislative package.
House Bill 4158 would require a person be convicted of a crime before law enforcement agencies and prosecutors could take ownership of seized cash and other assets, as long as the property is valued at less than $50,000.
Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told Michigan Capitol Confidential that after more than a year and a half working on the legislation, he’s pleased that the bill passed out of committee.
“It’s a balancing act and I think the bill, as it stands now, is a good one,” Runestad said.
Runestad said House Republican leaders told him they are interested in the bill. He plans to take up another forfeiture bill that he sponsored as soon as next week, and work is continuing on two other reform bills that still lack a consensus.
Mackinac Center analyst Jarrett Skorup co-authored a study on Michigan civil asset forfeiture with Dan Korobkin, the ACLU of Michigan's deputy legal director. Skorup said the bill is a good step but believes the bill should be tweaked in some “small but significant ways.”
“This is a solid step in the right direction and lawmakers should be commended for taking it up. Hundreds of innocent Michigan citizens lose their property every year through civil asset forfeiture,” Skorup said. “We will encourage legislators to ensure that any assets gained without a criminal conviction – as abandoned or relinquished property – go to the state’s general fund rather than back to local law enforcement agencies. This will better protect individual rights and prevent policing for profit.”
House Judiciary Committee Minority Vice-Chair, Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, was the only committee member to vote against House Bill 4158. Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw, voted “present.”
“The bill imperils public safety by making it much easier for criminals to operate and by draining funds from local police departments,” Greimel said in an emailed statement. He added, “Moreover, there are already due process protections in existing law: If someone objects to the civil forfeiture of their property, law enforcement must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property forfeited is connected to a crime.”
Current law that would not change allows law enforcement to seize property at the scene or during an investigation when there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and the owner is involved. This is often but not always related to drug cases, and is not generally controversial.
Forfeiture happens later, under a legal process that lets law enforcement take permanent possession of a person’s property with a lower standard of proof than it would take to convict someone of a crime.
A criminal conviction requires the highest burden of proof — beyond a reasonable doubt. If the legislation reported by the House Judiciary Committee becomes law, on drug-related crimes the state must convict a person in a court of law before a civil court decides whether the assets were gained as a result of the illegal activity.
In 2016 the typical Michigan asset forfeiture proceeding involved about $500 worth of assets, usually cash and vehicles, according to data obtained through open records requests to the Michigan State Police. Given that low dollar value, critics of the current law say, it’s often not worth it for an individual to hire a lawyer to try to get the goods back.
Michigan State Police records indicate that in 2016 law enforcement used civil asset forfeiture to take ownership of property from more than 700 people who were either never charged with a crime, or were charged and found innocent. Out of the 5,290 forfeiture cases Michigan adjudicated in 2016, less than half involved someone who had already been convicted of a crime.
More than $15.3 million in cash, vehicles and other assets was forfeited throughout the state in 2016. Since 2000, the state has forfeited about $20 to $25 million worth of assets each year.
Since civil asset forfeiture has a lower standard of proof than a criminal conviction, at times, law enforcement officials have been able to use it to take property even when other charges are thrown out.
Over the past several years, some notorious cases have come to light and news reports from around the state have raised public awareness of this controversial law. Michigan Capitol Confidential has contributed to this record with stories involving a former detective, a college student, a 1965 Chevy Nova and a Traverse City couple, among others.