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Bill would require police to get a conviction in order to keep confiscated property, money

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Under Michigan's civil forfeiture laws, people can have their property and money forfeited to police without ever being convicted of breaking the law, or, in some instances, even charged with a crime.

State lawmakers are now considering a bill that would tighten up our state's loose civil forfeiture laws.

Jarrett Skorupwith the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is testifying today in favor of House Bill 4158. Skorup joined Stateside to talk about the state of Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws.

Listen to the interview above, or read highlights below.

Michigan’s current civil forfeiture practices

Skorup said there is a large difference between how forfeiture “should work,” and how Michigan police departments carry out the practice. The practice of forfeiture should “ideally” target people “who are breaking the law, and they’ve gained assets from that.” Following a conviction, those assets would be forfeited and used by the state “to recompensate victims or to investigate crimes,” Skorup said.

In Michigan, however, police can seize property “without any criminal conviction or even allegation of a crime,” Skorup said. “It’s because the police are charging the asset of being involved in illegal activity rather than the person. So that’s how you get around what we normally think of as constitutional protections.”

What happens to seized assets?

Seizure of assets during an investigation is normal police protocol, Skorup said. But, he said, “the process in Michigan is the person who lost the asset has to challenge in order to get it back.”

In many cases, the legal fees associated with getting the asset back are worth more than the asset itself, Skorup said. That means some citizens, particularly low income people who can’t afford those legal fees, will lose their property or assets without being convicted of or charged with a crime.

Where does the money from forfeited assets go?

Michigan typically seizes and keeps “twenty to twenty five million dollars” worth of assets per year, Skorup said, and “one hundred percent of the profits go back to the local law enforcement [agency].” For some police departments with declining budgets, Skorup said, “they’ve relied more heavily on asset forfeiture.”

While the Mackinac Policy Center supports law enforcement, they find this practice worrisome, Skorup said, because it incentivizes police to seize property regardless of a conviction.

What would House Bill 4158 change?

Under the bill, law enforcement “would have to obtain a criminal conviction” before seizing anything “under $50,000 dollars, which is the vast majority of [forfeitures] that happen in the state,” Skorup said.

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