TRAVERSE CITY — A bill aimed at protecting property rights of the accused is amassing support from local officials as it gains steam among state lawmakers.
House Bill 4158 — introduced this month by Republican state Rep. Peter Lucido — would safeguard residents from court-ordered property seizures unless they’ve been convicted of a crime. Lucido contended its passage would affect hundreds annually.
“We have people that get their property taken by police who are not detached, neutral magistrates or judges,” Lucido said. “That’s violation of property rights 101. … It’s called due process under the Fourth amendment and the 14th amendment.”
Lucido noted law enforcement — specifically through task forces like the Traverse Narcotics Team — have been overly empowered by laws that allows police to confiscate property from those suspected to be involved with drugs.
Michigan’s law enforcement agencies collected more than $244 million in gross forfeiture proceeds between 2001 and 2013, averaging about $19 million per year, according to a report from the Institute for Justice. And none required a conviction.
Police agencies, in turn, are authorized by law to offload those assets and keep a portion of the proceeds to buy equipment and “enhance all law enforcement activities.” Records show TNT seized at least $400,000 during the past six years.
The bill would prohibit forfeitures unless a suspect is found guilty of a crime in court, amending a section of an existing state law. It would take effect next year if passed into law, and would only apply to seizures under $50,000.
“$50,000 is a little bit much to have in your pocket,” Lucido explained.
Local and state officials — including those who soon could be stripped of their authority to confiscate property — have praised the spirit of the bill. Others, while recognizing need for further reform, were hesitant to endorse the changes.
“It would be easier for us and more fair to those who are having their property forfeited to have a criminal conviction,” said Grand Traverse County Undersheriff Nate Alger. “Our system is based on being innocent until proven guilty.”
Attorney General Bill Schuette this week said conviction before seizure is a “good principle” to maintain. County Prosecutor Bob Cooney noted most local forfeiture cases include a criminal conviction but said current laws force them to continue.
“I wish the state would better fund narcotics teams and not incentivize them in anyway to go after forfeiture dollars,” Cooney said. “At the same time, those laws were set up to take away profits from those selling illegal drugs. That’s the idea.”
Lucido’s bill eliminates the requirement people negotiate for the return of their possessions but some officials — like Kalkaska County Prosecutor Mike Perreault — are concerned it could unfairly entwine property seizures with plea bargains.
His office tries to avoid forfeiture altogether. The bill could connect those cases with criminal matters and force him into the business regardless, he suggested.
“I’m a little concerned that by tying them to a criminal conviction, it’s going to bring me people who try to barter their way out of things,” Perreault said. “I could also see the argument then that we’re only prosecuting people to take their stuff.”
Advocacy groups for years have lobbied against statutes that allow civil forfeiture cases to proceed. Some contended they disproportionally impact lower income residents because of often costly legal battles attached to reclaiming property.
Others have said seizures lead to “policing for profit” because police, in most cases, can keep the proceeds for their own department. Michigan State Police officials have contended the concept helps save taxpayer dollars and deprives criminals of cash.
State Rep. Larry Inman said he supports Lucido’s bill and noted police shouldn’t be able to keep property without a conviction. Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel said “common sense” dictates police first need to prove someone guilty of a crime.
“I know forfeiture is a huge asset, especially for drug enforcement teams. There’s never enough money to fund those things,” Schendel said. “But I like to err on the side of the people and the Constitution.”
A legislative analysis contended the bill would have an indeterminate fiscal impact for law enforcement. It noted its passage likely would result in declined forfeiture-related revenues and impact federal revenue sharing for Michigan State Police.
The bill — introduced last week in the House — was recently referred to the Committee on Judiciary. Lucido said lawmakers soon will hear testimony as it pushes forward in the legislature. Visit record-eagle.com for continued coverage.