House-approved bill stops police from taking property without criminal conviction
Lansing — Police would need to secure a criminal conviction before taking items seized in an investigation under legislation the Michigan House approved Tuesday.
Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, said the current law “trampled” and “abused” the civil rights of the underprivileged who lack the money to fight the forfeiture.
“When you take away somebody’s right to fight back without due process, you violated the Constitution,” Lucido told reporters. “I’m entitled to a hearing and a right to be heard and a right to affirmative defenses to assert. Those were all taken away by not having a conviction first.”
The bill addresses civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice in which police can take items or cash believed to have been involved in a felony. The law, which has been used primarily in the war on drugs, allows the property to be forfeited in a separate civil proceeding with or without a criminal conviction.
The law has made it tough for people to recover their property even if no charges or convictions resulted from the original police interaction.
“The intent of the law was to go after those profiting from drugs and drug dealing,” Lucido said. “We learned that that wasn’t stopping the dealers, but it was undermining the whole intent of the bill when it was passed years ago, and that it was taking from the under-privileged.”
A Michigan State Police report last year found that more than $12 million in cash and assets was forfeited from drug traffickers from Feb. 1-Dec. 31, 2016. More than $15 million in cash and assets was seized during that time period.
Charges were never filed in about 10 percent of the roughly 5,290 forfeitures authorized in 2016, according the state police report.
The House-passed bill would require a criminal conviction prior to prosecutors beginning a civil forfeiture proceeding. It also allows the owner of the property to relinquish the items of their own volition or as part of a plea agreement.
The legislation has gained broad support from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. When the bill passed through committee last week, opposition cards were submitted by the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, Michigan Sheriff’s Association, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.
Blaine Koops, executive director for Michigan Sheriffs Association, said current law already allows defendants to challenge the forfeiture through the civil proceeding. He said Lucido’s bill complicates the process and throws doubt on whether the seized property can be used for evidence during the criminal trial.
“Our goal here is to take away those instruments of criminality from those individuals,” Koops said.
Lucido said he expects continued opposition from some of the law enforcement community, which he said has used the law as a means of “policing for profit.”
“They’re the only ones who stand to profit from this,” said Lucido, who is also a lawyer.