By L.L. Brasier
The Michigan Senate today passed legislation that will make it tougher for law enforcement agencies to seize private property and also require police to better document how and why they took the property.
Under current Michigan law, police agencies can seize property -- including money, boats, cars and jewelry -- as long as they can prove by a "preponderance of evidence," that the property came from the proceeds of criminal activity. And police can keep the property even if they never seek criminal charges, forcing citizens to hire attorneys and go through expensive court proceedings if they want to get their property back.
Under the bills, passed unanimously out of the Senate, police will have to show a higher standard by "clear and convincing evidence," that the property came from crime. The bills also require that police document the property they seize with the Michigan State Police, their investigation that led to the seizures, how the proceeds were used, and net total of the proceeds. That information will be posted online by the MSP.
The bills were widely supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the bills into law.
"Whenever you can find a combination like that, you must be doing some pretty good work," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.
Some reporting is already required for assets related to suspected drug crimes, but not for prostitution, gambling, human trafficking, identity theft and other potential crimes. Law enforcement in Michigan reported receiving $20.2 million in proceeds in 2013, about $8.8 million of which was shared with federal agencies, according to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency.
Fix Forfeiture Executive Deputy director Jenna Moll, whose group of national conservative and progressive organizations is pushing changes at the federal and state levels, said a uniform reporting system in Michigan will bring transparency.
"We're thrilled. This is a great step in the right direction for Michigan," Moll said. "But there is more work to do," she said, noting that states, including New Mexico and Montana have banned civil forfeitures altogether, and require a criminal conviction.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Mackinac Center for Public Policy released a report last week calling for a ban against civil forfeiture, so a conviction would be required before assets could be taken.
Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center, applauded the progress in the new legislation, but warned that existing laws still allow the police agency doing the seizure to keep the assets, a term critics call "policing for profit."
"We see that as a big problem," Skorup said. "We see states that have eliminated civil asset forfeitures all together and that's our preference."
State Representative Pete Lucido, who sponsored some of the legislation, said he expects additional reforms soon. Currently, citizens trying to get their property back in a civil asset forfeiture must post a bond, and will often end up hiring an attorney. Lucido said he is working on a proposal that would eliminate bonds, and the losing party would have to pay the legal fees and court costs.
"I think you'll see a lot less overreaching by law enforcement," Lucido said. "It provides one more layer of accountability."
In February, the Free Press documented numerous cases of citizens losing property in police raids, but not being charged with crimes. And in some cases, the citizens were charged only after journalists reported on the seizures. Experts told the Free Press that Michigan was ripe for abuse.
Michigan ranks among the worst when it comes to protecting innocent people from government forfeiture, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Arlington, Va., that fights unfair seizures. The firm commissioned a study of all 50 states in 2010 and ranked Michigan among the five most likely to abuse forfeitures, giving the state a "D-" grade.
"Michigan has two primary problems," said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the institute told the Free Press at the time.. "First off, the government's burden is very light, but the primary problem in Michigan is the direct and perverse financial incentive at the heart of the laws."
Associated Press contributed to this report
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