House votes to limit forfeiture of assets in drug cases

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING (AP) — The state House voted Tuesday to make it tougher for law enforcement to take ownership of property seized in drug cases that do not result in convictions.

The legislation, which was approved 83-26, would be the second significant update to Michigan’s asset forfeiture law in recent years.

The bill sent to the Senate for consideration would prohibit prosecutors from permanently confiscating assets thought to be associated with criminal activity unless a defendant is convicted of a drug crime, no one claims any interest in the assets or the owner relinquishes ownership in writing.

The measure would not apply in seizures of property worth more than $50,000, excluding the value of contraband.

The sponsor, Republican Rep. Peter Lucido of Shelby Township, pointed to a report showing that in 2016, 523 people had property forfeited to law enforcement without being charged with a crime — roughly 10 percent of all civil forfeitures.

Nearly 200 defendants were charged and found innocent, but governments still kept their assets.

“That’s wrong. I think that people should be charged and convicted before anyone has the right to take and forfeit the property of an individual,” said Lucido, an attorney who has done criminal defense and other legal work. He said his bill would “level the playing field.”

The legislation is the latest to address concerns about police taking cash, vehicles and assets from people not convicted of crimes. In 2015, Michigan enacted laws requiring agencies that seize or forfeit property to make detailed reports to state police and raising the standard for civil forfeiture to one of clear and convincing evidence.

Groups backing the newest measure include the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Citing the 2016 asset forfeiture report to state police, they say assets typically seized were cars, cash and cellphones, and were worth less than $500.

Michigan law allows property to be seized by governmental entities if it is suspected of having been used for or derived from crimes connected with controlled substances, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

 Proponents of the law said it deters crime, while critics argued the power has been misused or even abused to help law enforcement agencies generate revenue.

Fifty-three Republicans and 30 Democrats in the GOP-controlled chamber voted for the bill. Sixteen Democrats and 10 Republicans opposed it.
Associated Press writer Alice Yin in Lansing contributed to this report.