Some police agencies oppose the bills, which would require more accountability when property is taken
A package of bills that would provide more transparency in asset forfeiture cases in Michigan is being considered by the Legislature.
House Bills 5250, 5251, 5252 and 5081 would require law enforcement agencies to disclose the number of criminal asset forfeiture proceedings, the alleged violation of the law and whether a person was charged or convicted, the date the property was seized, a description and value of the property, and a few other details.
Michigan has had numerous problems with asset forfeiture in the past, with money and property being seized by police from innocent people. The state has taken at least $250 million since 2000 and receives a "D-" from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that represents people pro bono who have been harmed by such practices.
According to the group, "[L]aw enforcement receives all proceeds of civil forfeiture to enhance law enforcement efforts, creating an incentive to pursue forfeiture more vigorously than combating other criminal activity."
One of the supporters of the legislation, Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said part of the reason for the bills is to help change these perverse incentives.
"It's just good transparency legislation," Rep. McMillin said. "It would show the ones who are using this tool correctly and the ones who aren't. That will be helpful."
The legislation passed the House Oversight Committee and could be taken up by the full House as soon as today. But opposition from law enforcement agencies could kill the proposed laws.
The Michigan State Police did not respond to a request for comment, but in testimony before a House Committee, Sgt. Amy Dehner, legislative liaison for the MSP, said the agency opposed the bills as written because some parts are "procedurally not possible." While generally supporting more transparency, she said it would require more employees to keep up with the new reports and she worried about privacy.
"Some of the reporting requirements, we feel, could either put an informant in jeopardy or a person who may not even have been charged yet has their assets published online and are now hanging out there and can be tracked back," Dehner said in her testimony. "And potentially could compromise a witness or an open investigation."
Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice criticized current forfeiture proceedings and disputed the fears.
"Forfeiture is the one of the biggest threats to property rights of the residents of Michigan," he said. "This bill is carefully crafted to give the governor and state legislators the information about what property law enforcement has seized and forfeited.
"The bills require reporting on only closed cases in which the investigations and court actions have ended," McGrath added. "Objections about compromising witnesses are pretext for some members of law enforcement not wanting legislators to know exactly what property is being seized and how law enforcement is spending forfeiture proceeds."
The Michigan Sheriffs' Association did not respond to a request for comment.