A series of bills currently working their way through the Michigan Legislature are designed to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. One bill, HB 4158, was introduced in 2017 by State Rep Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township). It would require a criminal conviction before property suspected of being involved in a crime could be seized.
If passed, the law would apply to property valued under $50,000. As a result, this bill would cover almost all instances of civil asset forfeiture in Michigan and so would give an additional layer of protection to citizens. It would not apply the higher-ticket items usually associated with drug racketeering.
Lucido hopes his bill will protect innocent individuals from potential abuses of civil asset forfeiture law. “I have been in the law business for thirty years,” says Lucido. “I’ve watched the destruction this has caused to families, businesses and individuals.”
The libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice gives Michigan a D- for its civil asset forfeiture laws. The Institute argues the system places a heavy burden on innocent property owners. For example, if a seizure is related to drug racketeering, the owner has to prove his or her innocence before being able to reclaim the seized property.
Another issue the Institute raises is that under the current system, law enforcement can retain 100% of the proceeds from seized property. This incentivizes seizures by these agencies as profits will directly benefit them. Between 2001 and 2013, law enforcement agencies reported proceeds from civil asset forfeiture at an average of about $19 million per year.
As Lucido explains, law enforcement is using this income to pad their budgets: “These police officers work overtime. When we heard testimony, they said the overtime is being financed by civil asset forfeiture funds.”
Libertarian groups and the ACLU support reform of the law in Michigan. However, law enforcement officials oppose it. Bob Stevenson, former Livonia Police Chief argues it is vital for law enforcement to be able to seize property without a conviction.
Daniel Pfannes, Undersheriff in Wayne County, says there is currently sufficient oversight on law enforcement. “To listen to the testimony that was given last week, one would believe that the police were the prosecution, judge and jury in regards to civil asset forfeiture, and that just isn’t true,” he said.
Despite this opposition, lawmakers have introduced three further bills to further reform Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture procedures. State Rep. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake Township) has introduced HB 5702, a bill which would require a full review and a court order before any seizure could take place. “Prosecutorial review provides a measure of oversight for the public so civil asset forfeiture cannot be abused,” explains Runestad who is also chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
A second bill, HB 5703, introduced by State Rep. Gary Glenn (R-Williams Township), would mandate training for law enforcement to ensure correct procedure is followed. “We must ensure our law enforcement officers are well trained and using appropriate procedures when it comes to property seizures,” says Glenn.
The third bill, HB 5704, introduced by Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), is designed to make the process of civil asset forfeiture consistent across the state by putting local processes under the domain of state law. “Our officers do fantastic work,” explains LeFave, “but it is hard to do their job effectively when the rules change drastically from one municipality to another.”
These three bills will be taken up for consideration by the House Judiciary Committee. If passed, all bills could come into effect as soon as next year.
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