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New efforts to reform Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws

Posted at 7:27 PM, Jun 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-25 19:27:20-04

LANSING, Mich. — In an effort to push forward reforms on Michigan’s controversial civil asset forfeiture laws, both prominent conservative and progressive groups joined forces Thursday to advocate for change.

The Fix Forfeiture group will pursue reforms to help ensure that no agent of the government can take an individual’s property without due process of law, according  to a release from the group.

Groups involved with Fix Forfeiture include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Center for American Progress, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition.

“We need a balanced, bipartisan approach to address abuses of Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws,” said Rep. Klint Kesto, who chairs the state’s House Judiciary Committee and is also part of the group’s leadership team.

Fix Forfeiture claims to be the first organization in the country to bring together progressive and conservative partners in an effort to pass sweeping civil asset forfeiture reforms. Michigan is one of three states that will be included in the national push.

Among the coalition’s key goals, reform efforts will focus on:

  • Establishing reporting requirements for police to seize property
  • Ensuring no individual can have property forfeited without first being convicted of a crime
  • Adding due process protections for those involved in asset forfeiture
  • Exempting certain property of civil forfeiture laws that would ‘create undue hardship for the property owner.’
  • Addressing conflicts of interest with agencies that retain assets

Through civil asset forfeiture, the government can seize property of individuals who are suspected of being involved in criminal activity. In some cases, individuals haven’t been charged with a crime.

Since 2000, more than $250 million in forfeiture revenue has been collected by Michigan law enforcement agencies, with more than $24 million in cash and assets in 2013 alone.

In Lansing, Republicans in the House introduced a package of bills in April aimed at requiring stronger and more uniform reporting of forfeitures from police agencies. The reforms would also raise the evidentiary standards to “clear and convincing” rather than the current “preponderance of evidence.”

Nationally, civil asset net forfeitures rose to $4.2 billion in 2012, which was up from $1.7 billion in the preceding year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, introduced reform legislation of his own in Congress earlier this year dubbed the FAIR Act, that would restore the Fifth Amendment’s role in civil forfeiture proceedings.

“It’s guilty until proven innocent in the (current) case, and that’s not the way we should work it,” Walberg told FOX 17 in April.

In May, Sgt. Amy Dehner, an 11 year veteran and legislative liaison with the Michigan State Police, testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing saying the practice is critical in the process to stop drug trafficking.

“As long as that cash and those assets continue to flow, whether they can sell a car, a house, stolen TVs, if they can turn that into cash, they continue to allow that illegal business to flourish,” she said. “Our ability to intercede in that process is critical.

Following the hearing, Dehner told FOX 17 she didn’t agree with the assessment that individuals who have had their assets seized through forfeiture laws are being treated ‘guilty until proven innocent.’

In February, Wally Kowalski of Van Buren County told FOX 17 his home had been raided by the Michigan State Police before he had ever been charged with a crime.

Kowalski, who has a Ph.D from Penn State University and a background in engineering and specializes in ultraviolet light technology, has been a medical marijuana card holder for several years. He was growing the drug for medicinal use for himself and several designated patients at a home that’s been in his family for decades when it was raided by the Michigan State Police’s Southwestern Enforcement Team in September 2014.

“I realized they were raiding me for the marijuana,” he told FOX 17 in February. “I went right up to them and said ‘I’m a legitimate grower and I’ve got cards, this is a legitimate operation’ but they didn’t buy it.”