Law enforcement in Michigan will be prohibited from permanently taking ownership of cash and other property seized in drug cases unless there is a criminal conviction or the assets are worth more than $50,000, under bipartisan bills signed into law Thursday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The laws target civil asset forfeiture, a practice that critics say has been abused to fund police activities.
“I know that many of our citizens have not been treated fairly or offered the protection that they deserve, and that changes today,” Whitmer, a former interim county prosecutor, said during a bill-signing ceremony at the Capitol that was attended by Attorney General Dana Nessel, lawmakers and others.
The laws will prohibit assets taken in suspected drug crimes from being forfeited unless the defendant is convicted or the value of the money and property is more than $50,000, excluding the value of contraband. A conviction or guilty plea will not be required in instances where no one claims an interest in the property, the owner allows the forfeiture, or a defendant has been charged but cannot be located or extradited back to Michigan.
The new restrictions will apply to forfeiture proceedings that are pending on, or initiated on or after, next Jan. 1.
“No one should profit from criminal activity, but to take somebody’s goods and deprive them before there’s been due process delivers an injustice to the system,” said state Sen. Peter Lucido, a Republican from Macomb County’s Shelby Township who sponsored one of the bills .
In 2017, more than 700 people had property forfeited to Michigan law enforcement agencies without being charged with a crime, which amounted to roughly 11% of all civil forfeitures. More than 200 defendants were charged and found not guilty, but governments still kept their assets. In many cases, no one claimed an interest in the property.
Law enforcement agencies reported netting about $13 million in proceeds from forfeitures in 2017.
At least 11 states require a criminal conviction to engage in some or all forfeiture proceedings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states fully prohibit civil forfeiture.
The new laws are the latest to address concerns about asset forfeiture in the state. In 2015, Michigan enacted laws requiring agencies that seize or forfeit property to make detailed reports to state police and raising the standard for civil forfeiture to one of clear and convincing evidence.
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