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Lansing — The Michigan Senate gave final approval Wednesday to reforms that make it a little more difficult for law enforcement agencies to keep items such as cars and boats seized as part of criminal investigations that don’t result in charges.

Under the chief bill in a legislative package passed without discussion or opposition, law enforcement agencies would have to provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the seized items in drug-related, illegal gambling and human trafficking cases were used in criminal activity before they would be allowed to keep them.

The process known as civil forfeiture has been under attack by individual rights advocates who say it has become a popular way for police agencies to boost their budgets in the face of other funding challenges.

Michigan ranked among the five states with the least amount of citizen protections against civil forfeiture, according to a 2010 report by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, Institute for Justice.

Critics say current policy, requiring a “preponderance” of evidence to seize cash, cars, homes and other property connected to alleged crimes, has led to abuse.

Michigan law enforcement agencies under state law seized or shared in seizure proceeds totaling more than $24 million in 2013, the latest year for which data are available from Michigan State Police.

The statistics cover only seizures allegedly connected to drug crimes and not other state laws authorizing civil forfeiture.

The package of bills also mandate detailed reporting of property seized and forfeited as part of investigations and transparency requirements for agencies executing seizures.

The bills, previously approved by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, now go to Gov. Rick Snyder for his consideration.

Holly Harris, executive director of the reform group Fix Forfeiture, particularly hailed the enhanced transparency mandates.

“Today, the Michigan Senate put a bright light on their state’s civil asset forfeiture procedure, which will go a long way in protecting innocent property owners,” Harris said. “Now the state will have a uniform reporting system, bringing transparency and ultimately fairness to the process. We look forward to Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature to make this bill Michigan law.”

Backers of these reforms see them as a step toward an ultimate goal of ending civil property forfeitures for individuals who are not convicted of crimes.

At the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy, analyst Jarrett Skorup said the bills move Michigan’s forfeiture laws in the right direction.

“The state should not be able to take ownership of someone’s property unless they have been convicted of a crime through the criminal system,” said Skorup, co-author of a report on forfeiture in Michigan. “These bills are a great first step towards improving Michigan’s forfeiture regime, but to fully protect Michigan residents, the state should eliminate civil forfeiture altogether.”

The Mackinac Center’s report advocated three main reforms: increased reporting requirements for property that is forfeited (solved by Wednesday’s legislation); reduced “policing for profit” by moving forfeited proceeds away from local law enforcement agencies and toward general government funds; and eliminating civil forfeiture.

A number of other states have looked to reform forfeiture laws in recent years.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com

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