Column: Require a conviction for forfeiture
Everyone knows the phrase “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” But unfortunately that principle does not actually apply to everyone. With one simple reform now working its way through the Michigan Legislature, we can finally fix that injustice. It is time for Michigan to require a criminal conviction for the practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
Some law enforcement agencies across Michigan are currently seizing private property from people they sincerely believe committed a crime. When some of those people turn out to be innocent, however, their property can still be forfeited to the government. And unfortunately not many can afford the lawyers and the fees to get it back. Instead, police departments sell it and keep the profits. We need to fix this.
In 2016 alone, law enforcement agencies in Michigan seized property from hundreds of people who were never charged with a crime. Hundreds more were charged but later cleared. These people did nothing wrong and still lost their car, computer, cellphone, and even their savings just because the government got it wrong. With no conviction required, that could happen to any of us.
House Bill 4158 would change that. This important reform changes our asset forfeiture laws to protect everyone other than criminals, while still allowing our police to go after the bad guys to the full extent of the law. This bill simply draws a bright red line between asset forfeiture for the innocent and for the guilty.
This bill does not change the rules regarding forfeiture for the guilty, which can be a useful tool to help police stop illegal activity. Local police will still be allowed to take assets valued higher than $50,000, which is often a sign of a major drug operation. And property that is abandoned — if police pull over a suspected drug mule and the suspect denies knowing anything about a duffel bag of cash in the trunk, for example — could still be forfeited.
But the vast majority of forfeiture cases are for much smaller amounts of money and property, and all too often they harm people who have never been proven guilty. Those people never should have had their rights or property taken away. With this reform, no innocent Michigan resident will have to go through that again. We will all be better protected by requiring prosecutors to get a conviction before asset forfeiture occurs.
Michigan has improved in this area in recent years. In 2015, the Legislature raised the standard of evidence for when a forfeiture can occur and created new transparency requirements so citizens could see what happens with the seized property. And in 2016, Michigan eliminated a 10 percent bond requirement, where citizens who had their assets seized had to pay money to even try to get their property back.
Those reforms made good progress, but they were not enough. Too many people in our state still have reason to believe that sometimes “guilty until proven innocent” is how the criminal justice system actually works. We can do the right thing and join more than a dozen other states to require a criminal conviction before civil asset forfeiture takes place.
Tom Leonard is speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.