New Michigan law stops cop confiscations without conviction

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs civil asset forfeiture reform laws on Thursday.

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed into law bipartisan legislation to reform state civil asset forfeiture rules by requiring a conviction before police can permanently confiscate property in most cases.

The criminal justice reform, spearheaded by Republican Sen. Pete Lucido of Shelby Township, will take effect in 2020 and does not apply to drug distribution cases where seized property is worth more than $50,000.

But in most controlled substance cases, it would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using the civil asset forfeiture process to take ownership of personal property unless or until an individual is convicted or pleads guilty to a crime.

“No one should profit from criminal activity,” Lucido said. “But to take somebody's goods and deprive them before there’s been due process delivered is an injustice.”

Other bills signed Thursday would delay civil forfeiture actions during criminal proceedings involving controlled substances, require the government to notify a person that his or her property has been seized and to return that property within 14 days if the forfeiture is not justified.

Michigan law had allowed police to seize and sell property seized if there was reasonable cause it was related to a drug crime. State and local agencies confiscated more than $13 million in cash and assets in 2017, according to a Michigan State Police report to the Legislature, but critics suggested profit motives could encourage abuse.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel joined Whitmer. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield, Democratic Minority Leader Christine Greig and sponsoring lawmakers from both parties at a bill signing ceremony in the Michigan Capitol. She praised the reforms.

The law had “deprive people of due process and quite frankly created bad relationships between law enforcement and the communities that they served,” she said. “And I think those injustices will now be made right.”

Some law enforcement officials have criticized the legislation, arguing by requiring a conviction, the law will afford a higher level of protection for alleged drug dealers than others subject to civil proceedings or lawsuits.

But the bipartisan bill signing proved a cathartic moment for Whitmer and lawmakers, who are in the midst of political feuds over the state budget, road funding taxes and no-fault auto insurance reforms.

Criminal justice reform is “not a Democratic or a Republican issue,” Whitmer said. “It’s one that impacts Michiganders across our state, and now is our time and our opportunity to do something about it.”

Gilchrist, who is co-chairing a new tax force on jail and pretrial incarceration, echoed that optimism.

“We need to focus on bipartisan solutions to the problems that we face in Michigan,” he said. “And there is perhaps no greater demonstration thus far than what we’re going to be doing today.”

House Democrats and Republicans who traded jabs on the floor Wednesday night during a vote on sweeping auto insurance reform legislation rallied together around the new civil asset forfeiture law Thursday.

“But everybody up here knows there is more to do,” said Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, suggesting lawmakers will target other “low-hanging fruit” in coming months as they continue to pursue criminal justice reforms.

“None of us want a system that’s different for the poor than it is for the affluent. None of us want a system that’s not efficient. None of us want a system that’s not smart, and safe, without being expensive.”

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.