Hope for Asset Forfeiture Reform in Michigan


I’m pleased to see that a bill has been submitted in the Michigan legislature to reform the way the police seize assets, both money and property, in criminal cases. There are actually two bills, but the most important of the two would require a conviction before a seizure can take place.

Since 2001, Michigan agencies have seized at least $250 million worth of property and money from citizens. While much of what’s seized comes from criminals, a significant amount of assets and a number of cases involve people like Sutton.

A newly introduced bill would prevent many of those situations. House Bill 5213, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would prohibit civil asset forfeiture in Michigan unless a person is convicted of a crime…

Rep. Irwin said forfeiture, which is a way for the government to seize or confiscate assets, has “spun out of control.”

“Asset forfeiture was sold as a needed tool for law enforcement to attack drug kingpins and gang leaders,” Rep. Irwin said. “[But] too often, law enforcement uses the current asset forfeiture law to take tens of millions of dollars every year, mostly from low-level users and small-time dealers. We need to change how asset forfeiture works. By requiring a person be convicted of a crime before their seized property is subject to forfeiture, we will stop the worst abuses and curtail the insidious incentives that lead some law enforcement to short circuit due process and the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty.”…

Last November, the government seized $135,000 from the Cheung family restaurant. Though no criminal charges were filed, the feds went after them for making bank deposits under $10,000. Banks must notify the government when they receive deposits of $10,000 or more. After the money was taken, the family could not pay their property taxes or inventory costs for their restaurant. Eventually, charges were dropped.

The family was represented by Stephen Dunn, an attorney in Troy. He said Rep. Irwin’s proposed bill is good, but should go further.

“[The bill] provides necessary due process before property is forfeited to the state, but it does not go far enough,” Dunn said. “It is an important first step. But much more needs to be done concerning Michigan asset forfeiture law.”

He suggested a law that requires notification to the property owner within a certain amount of time, criminal proceedings within a timeframe, the release of seized funds if they are required to pay for legal defense, a way for property to be returned and litigation costs paid if a defendant is not successfully prosecuted by the state.

Those are great ideas. I don’t know if this bill is likely to pass. Republicans have supermajority control of both houses of the state legislature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t pass. There are many Republicans who favor reform of the system as well.

Comments

  1. says

    Have any of these cases ever been tested in court as due process violations? Perhaps if the ACLU can find someone whose gun was seized the NRA will pitch in to defend the 5th Amendment…

  2. Peter B says

    As I see it asset forfeiture is an attempt to prevent one accused of stealing something from selling it to pay for his defense.

    When it goes beyond that without a conviction of the person or persons involved it’s theft.

    I can accept that proceeds from illegal activity may need to be preserved. An expensive home purchased with such proceeds must remain subject to forfeiture (law enforcement lien?) but not actually seized until conviction.

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