Our Editorial: Make a stand for civil liberties

The Detroit News

The Michigan Legislature is considering a bill that would protect the property of state citizens from police seizure and forfeiture — unless the individual in question has been convicted of a crime. That’s an important distinction and one that would add this state to a growing number of others that have passed these protections.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby-Township, introduced the legislation a year ago, and it hadn’t gotten any traction until recently, when the House Judiciary Committee offered him a hearing this Tuesday.

Lawmakers should follow through with this straightforward change, which would help protect the civil liberties of Michigan residents and prevent clear abuses from continuing under current law. And it’s got broad support, with both the Mackinac Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan advocating for the bill.

Lucido’s legislation would do a couple things: Establish the conviction prerequisite before police can take property; and individuals wouldn’t have to negotiate with police for the return of their property.

This legislative fix follows several other modifications to the state’s asset forfeiture law in recent years. Those changes have made it easier and less costly to get property back when it’s been seized by police. Prior to that change, it was much tougher for citizens (especially the poor) to recover wrongly taken property — even if charges or criminal convictions were never filed.

The Legislature has also made it harder for police to take property by raising the burden of proof from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” And the police now have to report property seized.

But those former interventions by lawmakers didn’t go far enough.

A report last year from the Michigan Department of State Police (thanks to the new reporting requirements) highlighted that charges were never filed in about 10 percent of the cases that collected more than $15 million in forfeited cash and property. After selling items or donating property, police reported $12.3 million in net proceeds between Feb. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016.

Michigan law enforcement agencies can keep 100 percent of the profits from asset seizures, and that’s clearly served as a perverse incentive for police departments to boost their bottom lines.

Lucido is a former probation officer and criminal defense lawyer, so he’s seen the abuses of the current civil asset forfeiture provisions, which are meant to prevent profit from property obtained during criminal activity. That’s a reasonable aim, but in too many cases this has resulted in a violation of citizens’ constitutional due process rights.

“In our criminal justice system, individuals are presumed innocent unless and until they are convicted,” Lucido said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with our state’s civil asset forfeiture process. With no hearings before the taking of property, the police have become the judge and jury.”

Adding the conviction requirement before property can be taken by police is a necessary step, and lawmakers should make this bill a priority. They also ought to make sure the language goes far enough so that they don’t need to revisit the issue again anytime soon.