Michigan is making positive moves on asset forfeiture. In late May, the Michigan House passed a package of bills which would reform civil asset forfeiture laws in the state. Although it does not completely solve the problem, the proposals represent a big step forward.
Civil asset forfeiture is a property tool used by law enforcement officials to confiscate property suspected of being used in a crime. It is a perversion of the Fifth Amendment because it does not require authorities to prove, let alone convict that the property was involved in a criminal activity.
Current law permits authorities to confiscate property simply by providing a ‘preponderance of evidence’, meaning 51% of it shows the property may have been implicated in a crime. While this tool was set up to fight drugs, too often it hurts innocent and law-abiding citizens. Examples of this abound in Michigan.
Two years ago, Thomas Williams, a 71 year old retired carpenter, was handcuffed and was forced to watch police raid his home, confiscate his car and take other personal belongings. The police then auctioned off his property, kept the earnings and are still trying to take his house. He was accused of dealing marijuana because he held a medical marijuana card for his cancer treatment. Thanks to these laws, a grandfather with cancer was treated like Pablo Escobar. Like many other victims of asset forfeiture laws, Williams was never charged with a crime. This is just one of millions of horrific stories all across the country.
Speaker Cotter (R-Mich.) introduced the package of bills which would improve transparency and auditing requirements. One of the bills outlaws property confiscation in cases of marijuana possession which amounts to less than an ounce. Two other bills raise the standard of proof needed to justify seizing private property by mandating ‘clear and convincing’ evidence or 67% rather than the former standard of simple preponderance.
This comes at a time when asset forfeiture laws on state and national level are being taken on by multiple state legislatures. New Mexico and Montana led the charge by reforming theirs in March of this year while on the national stage, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act which is the most comprehensive civil asset forfeiture reform to date. ATR was supportive of all those reforms.
These bills are a step in the right direction, but more has to be done to bolster the Fifth Amendment. We urge the Republican majority in the Michigan Senate to support civil asset forfeiture reform as a vital first step.