Civil asset forfeiture reform bills pass unanimously

Posted at 11:16 AM, Oct 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-07 11:16:06-04

LANSING, Mich. — Reforms aimed at increasing police reporting and the burden of proof in civil court for individuals who have property seized by police are now on the fast track to final approval from the governor.

The package of reform bills introduced by the House in April were unanimously approved Wednesday by lawmakers in the Senate.

Lawmakers at both the state and federal level have been working to reform civil asset forfeiture laws to make it more difficult for police agencies to seize property from individuals believed to be involved in criminal activity, even if they have not been charged with a crime.

The reforms passed Wednesday will raise the evidentiary standards to “clear and convincing” rather than the current “preponderance of evidence.” The reform bills passed will also change disclosure rules, requiring local law enforcement to file detailed annual reports to the state when property is forfeited.

“We’re not looking to do away with the tool, just looking to provide protections,” Rep. Kevin Cotter, the Republican House Speaker from Mt. Pleasant, told FOX 17 in May.

The most recentasset forfeiture reportavailable from Michigan State Police shows more than $24 million in cash and assets were seized from Michiganders in 2013.  Since 2000, more than $250 million in forfeiture revenue has been collected.

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,” Walbergtold 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.

Involved in efforts both locally and nationally, the bi-partisan advocacy group Fix Forfeiture was formed in June to pursue reform efforts. 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.

Fix Forfeiture claimed 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 included in the group’s national push for reform.

“It is said that sunshine is the best disinfectant and today the Michigan Senate put a bright light on their state’s civil asset forfeiture procedure, which will go a long way in protecting innocent property owners,” Holly Harris, Fix Forfeiture’s executive director, said in a Wednesday release.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy applauded Wednesday’s vote, calling it “a good first step.”

“The state should not be able to take ownership of someone’s property unless they have been convicted of a crime through the criminal system,” Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst and co-author of a recent report on forfeiture in Michigan, said in a news release.

“These bills are a great first step towards improving Michigan’s forfeiture regime, but to fully protect Michigan residents, the state should eliminate civil forfeiture altogether.”

Lawmakers in the House will have to provide a concurrence vote on the bills before they can be signed by Governor Snyder.