In Michigan, asset forfeiture reform must be done right

State Rep. Klint Kesto

In the fight against crime, police use a very effective tool called asset forfeiture, which involves seizing property — cars, houses, cash and more — belonging to individuals who are using the assets in connection with criminal activity.

In most cases, the property is sold or auctioned off, and the proceeds from the auction are added to local police or sheriff’s department budgets.

While this is a win for public safety, the profit incentive can invite wrongdoing. Moreover, it is not always a clear-cut case of criminals losing their property. Sometimes charges are dropped, or are not even leveled, yet the property remains in custody. The current law for asset forfeiture is broad enough to facilitate abuses that can offend American conceptions of private property rights and due process. To prevent such abuses, transparency and accountability measures are needed.

The bipartisan legislative package introduced this week and headed to the House Judiciary Committee focuses on a balanced solution that eliminates the vast majority of abuses while ensuring that law enforcement still has the tools necessary to keep our neighborhoods safe. It will ensure that citizens who believe their property was improperly taken will have their day in court.

The legislation increases transparency and accountability by instituting reporting requirements on all governmental entities that seize private property under Michigan’s drug, criminal and public nuisance laws.

The bills also change the burden of proof for prosecutors seeking to forfeit property. Instead of the current standard requiring that property is “more likely than not” connected with criminal activity, this legislation raises the standard to “clear and convincing evidence” which is the highest standard used in civil court.

The final focus of the legislative package limits Michigan’s drug forfeiture law, which currently prohibits the forfeiture of a person’s vehicle or property if an individual possesses a small amount of marijuana. However, a loophole in the law allows police to seize a person’s vehicle who is caught in the act of purchasing that marijuana. This is an unjust distinction that results in a punishment vastly disproportional to the crime. This legislation closes that loophole.

We believe this solution will establish the balance between law enforcement and property rights that has been lacking in some circumstances. The bills will receive due diligence in the Judiciary Committee, which will seek the transparency and accountability needed to make the asset forfeiture program work.

State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, represents the 39th District.