Michigan House committee debates civil asset forfeiture changes

    Sen. Pete Lucido testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his civil asset forfeiture bill. (Mikenzie Frost)

    Proposed changes to Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws were debated during a House committee Tuesday morning with bipartisan support and potential backing from the Michigan Attorney General.

    A package of House and Senate bills had been introduced to the Legislature in an attempt to change the process of how law enforcement in the state can seize and keep property after an arrest.

    Sen.Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, sponsored a bill that prohibits property from forfeiture if a conviction is not made for the crime in question or a plea bargain is made and the property in question is involved. His bill applies to items worth less than $50,000.

    “If you never bring charges, they’re going to get that property back, that’s it, it’s clear and simple. If you do bring charges and they’re found not guilty, and they went ahead and signed the form that said they want to contest it, don’t they have the right,” Lucido said. “Once they are found guilty, the civil asset forfeiture falls into place. But if they are found not guilty, they should be returned their property”

    He said law enforcement make subjective choices to take property during an investigation and by not allowing people the opportunity to get their property back, if a conviction is not made, their rights are violated

    “Law enforcement can do their jobs the same way they’ve always done it. They can take the property. But if the end of the day they are never charged or they are found not guilty, somebody should have their standing and their rights. And those rights are preserved,” he said. “That’s a property right. And under the Constitution we all have a constitutional right to claim our property.”

    Lucido’s bill would not prohibit the immediate destruction of property that is not lawfully possessed by any person or that is dangerous to the health or safety of the public, regardless of whether the person is convicted, according to the House Fiscal Agency, HFA.

    The destruction of property is an area that Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel would like to see change. She said she would like to see standards set for seizure and destruction of property processes but does believe the state needs to alter the current laws.

    “I’ve long believed that civil asset forfeiture is a violation of due process,” Nessel said.

    She said she agrees with the notion there needs to be a conviction for the property to be forfeited.

    Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Bob Stevenson testified against the proposed changes. He argued convictions are not a guarantee in all cases, especially with drug charges.

    “It’s a misnomer that a conviction can be obtained in all drug cases. Drug money proceeds are often separated from the drugs to hide the connection,” Stevenson said.

    Lucido’s bill passed out the Senate with bipartisan support and was handed to the House.

    House bills sponsored by Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, and Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, outline similar changes in Michigan’s statue as Lucido’s bill. However, the two-bill package does not outline plans for the property in question to be sued in plea bargain negotiations.

    “That’s an endemic problem of practice and I know that my prosecutor in Kent County had what I consider to be absolute integrity about this and was very careful about addressing the moral hazards,” LaGrand said.

    A change in the civil asset forfeiture laws could significantly impact the budgets of law enforcement departments utilize that revenue.

    The HFA said the plans would have indeterminate, but potentially significant, fiscal impact on both the Department of State Police and local law enforcement agencies.

    The legislative analysis done by the HFA outlined the impact on law enforcement agencies would depend on the number of instances where controlled substances civil asset forfeiture cases do not result in:

    Criminal convictions or plea agreements, no person claiming an interest in the seized property, or the property owner not relinquishing ownership of the property; as such cases would no longer be subject to civil asset forfeiture in instances where the value of the seized property is less than $50,000.

    Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, sat on the House Judiciary Committee and listened to testimony about the proposed bills. He said he understands the concern from law enforcement about potentially losing revenue after changing the civil asset forfeiture laws. He argued the Legislature needs to look at the budget for other areas to provide funding.

    “We need to find things to increase county revenue sharing. I’m not talking about increasing taxes, but right sizing state programs to make sure that our locals are getting the funding they need and they don’t have to set up speed traps,” LaFave said. “Again, I’m not alleging anybody is doing that, they don’t have to over-zealously use civil asset forfeiture to balance their books and I don’t believe anybody is right now. But the temptation will always be there.”

    The debate is expected to continue next week during another committee hearing. All three bills would take effect 90 after enacted.

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