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Reforms to protect innocent property owners from government overreach awaiting action in the Michigan Senate

06/30/2015

In February, just after the start of the 2015 legislative session, Michigan House Republicans rolled out their action plan for the year. Among the issues included in the action plan was reform of the Wolverine State's civil asset forfeiture laws to promote transparency, accountability, and protect innocent people whose property may be wrongly seized by overzealous law enforcement.

Michigan's current civil asset forfeiture laws earned a "D," according to a recent FreedomWorks publication, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States. The standard of proof to forfeit property -- "a preponderance of the evidence," or a 51 percent likelihood that property seized is connected to a crime -- is far too low. Law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the proceeds of forfeitures, creating a perverse profit motive.

The Michigan House passed, with strong bipartisan support, a package of eight reform bills earlier this month, including HB 4505, which raises the evidentiary standard to "clear and convincing evidence." Though the package isn't as comprehensive as the new law in New Mexico, which requires a criminal conviction to begin forfeiture proceedings and eliminates the profit motive, the reforms are definitely a step in the right direction. They would offer protections for innocent property owners, such as Annette Shattuck, Ginnifer Hency, and Thomas Williams, each of whom have seen their property seized by law enforcement without ever having been charged with a crime.

FreedomWorks, as a partner organization in Fix Forfeiture, a national effort to reform bad civil asset forfeiture laws at the state level, is supportive of the efforts in Michigan, which were spearheaded by state Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township). "We need a balanced, bipartisan approach to address abuses of Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws," said Kesto, who chairs the Michigan House Judiciary Committee. "By requiring law enforcement to report on its civil asset forfeitures, we will increase transparency and lay a solid foundation for comprehensive reform. I am honored to work alongside Fix Forfeiture and its bipartisan partner organizations, and together we will move Michigan forward."

The reform package now sits in the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee. House Republicans "are optimistic they will be supported or improved upon." Senate Judiciary Chairman Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), who has a law enforcement background, has signaled openness to the bills. "Some reforms are needed," Jones recently said, "but I want to sit down with the Attorney General and go over each bill, and make sure we accomplish what the purpose of the bill is."

In April, with the future of New Mexico's comprehensive reforms in jeopardy, FreedomWorks activists made some 5,000 calls over 72 hours to Gov. Susana Martinez's office. With literally minutes left on the clock before triggering a pocket veto, Martinez signed the bill into law.

FreedomWorks will be keeping a watchful eye on Michigan, and our community is prepared to take action in support of this reform package in Michigan that will increase transparency and provide protections for innocent property owners.