Michigan House votes to limit asset forfeiture in drug cases

Property would be returned if there is no conviction

By DAVID EGGERT, Associated Press
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LANSING, Mich. - Cash and other property seized by police in drug cases would have to be returned to the defendant unless there is a conviction or the assets are worth more than $50,000 under bills approved overwhelmingly by the Michigan House on Thursday.

Similar measures cleared the Senate two weeks ago. Lawmakers must resolve some differences before sending the legislation to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The bills target civil asset forfeiture, through which government entities take possession of seized property during criminal investigations and then sell or use it. Critics say the practice has been abused and is an example of "policing for profit" to fund law enforcement.

The bipartisan House bills won approval on 107-3 votes after being deemed an early priority for Republican leadership this session. They would prohibit assets taken in suspected drug crimes from being forfeited unless the defendant is convicted or the value of the money and property is $50,000 or less, excluding the value of contraband. A conviction or guilty plea would 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.

"I'm proud to see the House stand together in a bipartisan fashion and really support and protect and safeguard our citizens' due rights of process. It still allows law enforcement to do their job," said one of the bill sponsors, GOP Rep. Jason Wentworth, of Clare.

Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield, of Levering, said "innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock of our criminal justice system."

Supporters of the legislation pointed to a report showing that in 2017, 736 people had property forfeited to law enforcement without being charged with a crime - roughly 11 percent of all civil forfeitures. More than 200 defendants were charged and found innocent, but governments still kept their assets. In many cases, no one claimed an interest in the property.

The bills are supported by conservative, liberal and other groups but are opposed by police chiefs and county prosecutors. Opponents of the legislation say forfeiture helps pay for law enforcement operations and is a useful tool to fight drug trafficking, including to persuade lower-level suspects to help take down major offenders.

The measures were in the works before last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which justices sided with an Indiana man whose $40,000 Land Rover was seized after he was arrested for selling drugs. The decision could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.

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