Opinion: Senate must follow House on civil asset reform
Earlier this year, my plan to ensure innocent people don’t lose their personal property to civil asset forfeiture was approved by the House with overwhelming bipartisan support.
This common-sense solution would protect the civil liberties of all Michigan residents while still allowing officers to crack down on convicted criminals. It would require an individual to be convicted of a crime before authorities are allowed to take and dispose of his or her property.
Unfortunately, the legislation has collected dust in the Senate Judiciary Committee for the five months since that historic vote. Sen. Rick Jones, who chairs the committee, appears reluctant to take the bill up for consideration. The former sheriff seems content with the status quo, which allows law enforcement officers to take and keep the property of individuals who are never even charged with a crime.
I respectfully disagree. As a former probation officer and criminal defense lawyer of more than 30 years, it appalls me that the fundamental legal concept “innocent until proven guilty” is completely ignored under the current civil asset forfeiture process.
Giving police agencies the authority to take personal property and dispose of it before an individual is convicted or even charged with a crime is a failure of our justice system, and it must be corrected. Requiring a conviction will safeguard the fundamental rights of Michigan citizens while still allowing law enforcement agencies the ability to crack down on convicted criminals.
Throughout my career, I have seen an overwhelming number of instances where overzealous police officers use their own subjective standard to take personal property without ever bringing criminal charges against the individual. Last year alone, hundreds of innocent people lost their property to civil asset forfeiture.
In 2017, Michigan law enforcement agencies reported confiscating $13.1 million worth of cash and property through civil asset forfeiture. In more than 200 cases, people who were later found not guilty were forced to forfeit their property, never to have it returned. In a staggering 736 cases, charges were never even filed.
My solution is simple. It still allows law enforcement to seize property based on probable cause, but would require a criminal conviction before law enforcement agencies can take ownership of the property using the civil asset forfeiture process. This way, an individual’s personal property can easily be returned if they are found not guilty.
Time is ticking, and the civil liberties of Michigan citizens are on the line. We all lose out if the Senate doesn’t act on these important reforms before the end of the year.
I urge my Senate colleagues – and you should urge them as well – to take up my civil asset forfeiture reform plan and see it through to completion.
State Rep. Peter J. Lucido represents the village of Romeo, Bruce Township, Washington Township and part of Shelby Township in the Michigan House of Representatives.