Police may soon need a criminal conviction before they can keep most assets taken while investigating a suspected crime. House and Senate bills that would restrict a process known as civil asset forfeiture passed out of the Legislature Thursday on nearly-unanimous votes.
Proponents of the legislation say it’s an important step to protect constitutional rights, and that the current system is ripe for abuse by cash-strapped law enforcement agencies. Opponents, primarily police organizations, argue civil asset forfeiture discourages crime by dissuading drug dealers.
“It’s important that we secure the constitutional rights that the people of this state have and deserve,” said Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield. “This chamber has been debating those bills for the last 20 years and I couldn't be more proud of the House chamber for stepping up and delivering real results to people in our state.”
The issue, as well as other criminal justice topics, has been an early area of bipartisan agreement in Lansing’s new era of divided political power. Both Chatfield and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said that trend reflects similar bipartisanship on the subject at the national level.
The package of three bills — sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township and in the House, by Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, and Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids — would restrict law enforcement’s ability to keep property seized in connection with a crime.
Together, the legislation would:
Require a criminal conviction before police can keep assets worth less than $50,000 seized in connection with a crime.
Provide an exception for when no one claims the asset.
Provide an exception for when the owner waives the conviction requirement (which law enforcement representatives say often happens when a suspect agrees to a plea deal.)
Provide an exception for when a criminal charge has been filed but police can’t find or arrest the suspect.
Some law enforcement officials have argued that the legislation will be an obstacle to fighting drug crimes, especially as the opioid epidemic continues to be a problem throughout Michigan. Proponents of the legislation, including most state lawmakers, say civil liberties should supercede any police reliance on forfeiture funds.
“For me, taking someone’s property before they’ve been convicted of a crime — that is more important to rectify than the local budget,” said Ananich. “We need to do both, but we need to do that first.”
The bills now go to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has indicated she is likely to sign it: “The Administration believes that this legislation is good bipartisan policy,” said spokeswoman Tiffany Brown via email.
Bridge reporter Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.