The presumption of innocence is embedded in the foundation of the American criminal justice system: Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
As a former probation officer and criminal defense lawyer of more than 30 years, it appalls me that this basic human right is completely ignored in Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws. While intended to allow for the confiscation of property gained during the commission of a crime, the system is heavily abused. Under current practice, law enforcement officers can take and keep the property of individuals who are never even charged with a crime — let alone convicted.
Let me be clear: No one should profit from criminal activity. However, we also have a constitutional duty to make sure the law doesn’t trample on the fundamental right to due process.
Throughout my career, I have seen an overwhelming number of instances where overzealous police officers use their own subjective standard to take personal property without ever bringing criminal charges against the individual.
I previously sponsored legislation, signed into law in 2015, that improved civil asset forfeiture procedures by increasing transparency and upping the standards for prosecutors. As a result of the added reporting requirements, we now have new data at our fingertips that illustrates just how important it is to implement further reforms.
In 2016, Michigan law enforcement agencies reported confiscating $15.2 million worth of cash and property through the civil asset forfeiture process. No charges were ever filed in about 10 percent of the cases. No hearings were held in those cases — the police were the judge and jury.
The Legislature can put an end to this controversial practice by taking up a bill I introduced requiring a criminal conviction before the police can seize property using the civil asset forfeiture process. This important reform protects the civil liberties and property rights of innocent people by insisting that law enforcement agencies prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed before they are allowed to take property.
Following the proper procedures will not mean that criminals are let off the hook. When criminal activity takes place, law enforcement agencies will still be able to hold cash and other items related to the crime as evidence. Once a conviction is obtained, they could then initiate the civil asset forfeiture process. There is no reasonable argument to warrant taking property from citizens before affording them their fundamental due process rights.
The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on my bill Feb. 6. I urge my colleagues to join in support as it moves through the legislative process.
State Rep. Peter J. Lucido represents Michigan’s 36th District.