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Lansing — The Michigan Legislature has approved two versions of legislation that would require a criminal conviction before police could permanently forfeit up to $50,000 of property believed to be connected to a crime.

The Senate passed its version of civil asset forfeiture reform two weeks ago, and the Michigan House on Thursday approved its own bills targeting the same issue in a 107-3 vote.

The chambers are likely to pass the reforms after hashing out differences regarding exemptions to the conviction requirement.

“This is the first step of negotiations,” House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, told reporters. “Both bills are in the second chamber at this point, and we’ll continue to have conversations, and we’ll find a way to rectify our differences and ensure that the people we serve have their constitutional rights protected.”

Noting that Republican Sen. Peter Lucido of Shelby Township has been working on the issue for several years, Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, said he’s open to changes to the legislation he introduced with Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids.

“We just want to get this done for the people of Michigan,” Wentworth said. “Whether that’s a Senate bill or a House bill, no issue for me.”

The state’s civil asset forfeiture laws have been a point of contention in the legal community for decades. They allow police to take cash, cars or other property that is suspected of being involved in a crime without a criminal conviction.

Prosecutors can permanently seize the items through a civil forfeiture proceeding, separate from the criminal process, so even those found innocent criminally can have their items taken under the lower burden of proof in civil court.

The Michigan State Police reported that more than $13 million in cash and assets believed to be related to drug trafficking were forfeited in 2017. Critics have argued that the lower burden of proof has given law enforcement an incentive to grab property to generate more revenue.

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.

But even after the “dust settled” on the changes, problems with the state’s current law were apparent, Wentworth said.

“We had a report from the MSP that showed almost 1,000 cases where charges were either not filed or they were found not guilty and innocent people’s property was taken and not returned,” he said.

The bipartisan House plan requiring a conviction before police could permanently seize or sell confiscated property worth less than $50,000 has received support from the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Lawmakers have said the $50,000 threshold would allow law enforcement to still take stricter seizure and forfeiture action with suspects they believe to be more serious drug dealers.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel joined Democratic and Republican lawmakers when they announced the bills on the House floor in January, though she noted some issues with provisions in the law.

The House bills allow exemptions to the conviction requirement if no one claims the property, if the defendant can’t be found, or if the defendant is out of state and can’t be extradited.

The House's approval of the forfeiture reform Thursday comes a little more than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court banned excessive fines in a case where an Indiana police department seized a Land Rover during a heroin investigation. 

The defendant argued the forfeiture of his vehicle was an additional fine on top of his sentence and violated the constitutional ban on excessive fines.

Some law enforcement groups have opposed the Michigan House's legislation, noting that the law affords a higher level of protection to alleged drug dealers than it does to other people who are the subject of civil proceedings or lawsuits.

Wentworth dismissed arguments about how the legislation could hurt revenue for law enforcement agencies.

“This bill was about protecting the due process rights of our citizens, not about budgeting or individual sheriff’s departments,” he said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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