Law enforcement pushes back on Michigan civil asset forfeiture reforms

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Robert Stevenson

Lansing — Bipartisan legislation that would reform the state’s controversial civil asset forfeiture laws received pushback Tuesday from Michigan law enforcement.

The Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police voiced opposition in a state House committee to proposals that would require a conviction before police permanently forfeit up to $50,000 in property believed to be connected to a crime.

The association’s executive director, Robert Stevenson, said, by requiring a conviction, the legislation affords a higher level of protection for alleged drug dealers than others subject to civil proceedings or lawsuits.

“The federal government can seize your money for tax evasion without a criminal conviction,” Stevenson said. “Geoffrey Fieger has made a very good living seizing people’s money without any type of conviction. The state of Michigan can seize your property without a conviction. Any of you can go to small claims court today and get an order to seize somebody’s else’s property without a conviction.”

The bipartisan civil asset forfeiture reform plan would require a conviction before police could permanently seize or sell confiscated property worth less than $50,000.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the House-initiated legislation Tuesday as well as a similar package of bills that was passed last week by the Senate. The bills received the unique dual support of the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Rep. Graham Filler, chairman for the committee, said lawmakers are likely to consider the bills further next week. The DeWitt Republican said legislators are working with law enforcement to address some of the concerns with the proposed reforms.

The requirement of a conviction would reform long-debated civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to permanently confiscate cash, cars or other property that they suspect was involved in the commission of a crime or obtained through the commission of a crime.

The forfeiture proceedings occur in civil court, separate from the criminal process, and require a prosecutor to establish clear and convincing evidence rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

More than $13 million in cash and assets amassed by drug traffickers was forfeited in 2017, according to a Michigan State Police report. 

The Legislature in recent years has increased the standard of evidence required to process forfeitures and eliminated a bonding requirement for citizens fighting to keep their property.

The $50,000 threshold would allow protections for people found with smaller amounts of money while acknowledging that larger quantities may indicate more serious dealers for which existing civil asset forfeiture laws may be more appropriate, said Sen. Peter Lucido, the Shelby Township Republican who introduced the Senate reform bills.

“It’s optically wrong not to give a person a day in court,” Lucido said. “…Once they’re found guilty, the civil asset forfeiture falls into place. But if they’re found not guilty, they should be returned their property.”

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel joined House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, for the introduction of the House civil asset forfeiture plan in January.

She told lawmakers Tuesday that she supported the bills in concept, but believed some tweaks were necessary on provisions for defendants located outside the state, a potential standard for the initial seizure of assets, and the destruction of property that could constitute evidence.

“These legislators have nearly a full two years,” Nessel said. “While I want to see this issue addressed as quickly as possible, take the time to get it right.”

Stevenson said drug deals are often separate from a dealer’s cache of cash and assets. While law enforcement may be able to prove a drug deal or the proceeds from a drug deal officers, they aren’t always able to connect them in court.

He gave the example of a confidential informant who made a $10,000 buy from a home that police later raided only to find a “dry hole” that sold out of drug products, but was littered with scales, packaging materials and $49,000, including the $10,000 used in the controlled buy.

“We would have to give them back all that property,” Stevenson said. “This is like being pregnant; you either are or you aren’t. It’s drug proceeds or it’s not drug proceeds.”

The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan also recommended changes to the bills, including lowering the threshold to $25,000 and giving law enforcement more time than the proposed 28-day window to issue a warrant.

“That’s wholly unworkable,” said Livingston County Prosecutor Bill Vailliencourt. “Lab reports alone form the state police crime lab to determine if a substance is controlled or not takes much longer than 28 days.”

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