Greater Police Accountability for Confiscated Property

by: Matt Newburg

10/08/2015 09:20 PM EST
Tags:
  criminal  
  criminal law  

Local police departments will find it more difficult to keep and sell confiscated property under legislation that has sailed through both the Michigan House and Senate.

On Oct. 7, the Senate unanimously passed a seven-bill package aimed at reforming Michigan’s civil forfeiture law. The House passed the legislation several months ago with little opposition.

House Bills 4499, 4500, 4503, 4504, 4505, 4506 and 4507 are now on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk. He is expected to sign them.

The bills will overhaul Michigan’s civil forfeiture system, which permits law enforcement agencies to take property associated with an alleged crime. Under current law, police departments can keep confiscated property indefinitely, even if the owner is never charged or convicted of a crime. Law enforcement agencies can also sell the seized property and retain the proceeds to supplement their budgets. Critics say the existing system incentivizes property seizures and invites abuse.

Under HBs 4500, 4503, 4504, 4506 and 4507, law enforcement would be required to file detailed annual reports with the state when property is taken. These reports would have to indicate whether the person was convicted or charged with a crime, the value of the assets and a description of the property, among other things. This information would be compiled by state police and posted online.

Meanwhile, HBs 4499 and 4505 would impose a “clear and convincing evidence” standard to keep certain confiscated property. Right now, the law requires there be a “preponderance of the evidence” for the police to retain property. Some have argued, however, the standard should really be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is required for criminal convictions.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union have both applauded civil forfeiture reform in Michigan. They assert the state should not be able to take a person’s property unless the person has been convicted of a crime. Others have taken it a step further and said that, to fully protect Michigan citizens, civil forfeiture should be eliminated entirely.

In 2013, Michigan police departments reported $24.3 million in civil asset forfeitures, according to numbers from the Michigan State Police. These figures include only drug-specific cases, and some agencies never filed a report.

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