House Speaker: Michigan must reform asset forfeiture

House Speaker Kevin Cotter

Government exists to provide services to the people, not to profit off them. Unfortunately, some Michigan police departments are doing the latter with actions hidden from public view. Republicans in the Michigan House of Representatives are going to change that.

Far too many people are falling prey to a well-intentioned but flawed policy called civil asset forfeiture. Under this law, officers are charging into people’s homes and businesses and seizing cash, cars and sometimes even the homes themselves. While this can be an effective way to hit real criminals in their pocketbooks, in many cases, criminal charges are never filed against the owner. Police nevertheless keep their possessions and, in some instances, auction them off for cash without any real records. When these private citizens ask for their possessions to be returned, they are often asked to pay a large fee and spend years in an impossible loop of red tape and bureaucracy.

We recently unveiled our House Republican Action Plan, a public blueprint that lays out our top legislative priorities for the next two years. We highlighted our desire to reform civil asset forfeiture laws, because we are committed to protecting the rights of every Michigan resident. We believe you deserve a better, more transparent government.

The simple truth is our widely criticized law allows law enforcement to boost their budgets at auction with little or no responsibility. Most Michiganians have no idea this takes place, and many who do have seen their lives turned upside down with no way to hold the state responsible when mistakes are made.

These cases sound like isolated incidents of corruption and abuses of power, but they are far from it. This is state law, and the police who conduct the raids are well within their legal right to seize and sell the property of the innocent and guilty alike and bury the results. It is well past time to bring some accountability into the system.

We will hold public hearings on this issue and bring in experts from all sides to testify to find the best possible solution. Whatever we come up with, people should never feel powerless to stand up for their rights and reclaim the property that’s rightfully theirs.

Our local police have an important job to do, and they do it well. But we have to ask why the law directs them to treat innocent people the same as criminals when it comes to asset forfeiture. What good is our criminal justice system if we cannot draw a distinction between going after criminals and punishing the innocent?

Everyone agrees the system needs more transparency and that we need to limit the profit incentives for police. The challenge is to design a system that protects both our rights and the public safety of our communities. We will have to work through every concern to find the best long-term solution, but we will find an answer that works for the people.

State Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, serves as the speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, and represents the 99th District.