The Michigan House Judiciary committee has passed a package of bills that would reform Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Currently, law enforcement officials are able to seize private property from residents and give it to government agencies even if no one is convicted of a crime.
You can read the Mackinac Center’s past work on the issue here.
The bill package deals with mandating reporting requirements of law enforcement agencies and raising the standard of proof that must be met before property can be forfeited.
The transparency bills were passed almost unanimously by the 11-person committee. The state only has a rough idea how much property is forfeited each year to local law enforcement units, and the bills would require more reporting and greater detail.
House bills 4500, 4503, 4504, 4506, and 4507, and 4508 were supported by Representatives Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township; Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township; Joel Johnson, R-Clare; Triston Cole, R-Bellaire; Jim Runestad, R-White Lake; Martin Howrlyak, R-Troy; Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township; Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit; Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw; Mary Rose Robinson, D-Detroit. (Rep. Heise did not vote on 4504.)
House Bill 4508, sponsored by Rep. Irwin, would limit forfeiture in cases involving less than one ounce of marijuana, if the drug was being used for personal use. In other words, someone possessing a small amount of marijuana could be charged with a crime, but law enforcement could not confiscate their vehicle or property. The bill was supported by all members of the committee except Rep. Heise.
House Bill 4505, sponsored by Rep. Lucido, and HB 4499, sponsored by Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, would raise the standard of proof needed to justify seizing private property. Currently, law enforcement must demonstrate that a “preponderance of the evidence” (51 percent) shows the property to be the tool or fruit of a crime. These bills would raise that to a “clear and convincing” (67 percent) standard, which is still not as high as the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for criminal convictions. HB 4505 passed with all voting yes except Rep. Guerra, who voted “no” and Heise, who abstained. HB 4499 passed 7-2, with Rep. Guerra and Rep. Robinson voting “no” and Reps. Heise and Howrlyak abstaining.
The Legislature should require a criminal conviction before property can be given over to the state. North Carolina has long outlawed civil asset forfeiture, and New Mexico recently voted to prohibit it in April of 2015 (requiring both people and property to be tried in criminal justice system together).
Regardless of what crime someone is alleged to have committed, residents must be convicted before they can be punished, and this standard should also apply to their private property. The Legislature should continue moving toward that ultimate protection of constitutional rights.
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