Michigan House Bill Would Ban Civil Asset Forfeiture, but Leaves Federal Loophole Unaddressed

LANSING, Mich. (Apr. 7, 2017) – A bill introduced in the Michigan House would reform asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state from taking property without a criminal conviction in most cases. 

Rep. Pete Lucido (R-Shelby Township) introduced House Bill 4158 (HB4158) on Feb. 2 to reform Michigan law by requiring a criminal conviction before prosecutors could proceed with asset forfeiture in most cases. Under current law, the state can seize assets even if a person is never found guilty of a crime.

According to the Institute for Justice, the state of Michigan earned a D- grade for their restrictive civil asset forfeiture laws. Michigan law enforcement agencies may presently keep up to 100% of all the forfeiture proceeds that come from seized assets. However, HB4158 does not go far enough toward stopping forfeiture-related abuses.

Even if HB4158 passes, the policing for profit motive would not be completely eliminated. HB4158 does not put asset forfeiture funds into the General Fund, keeping discretionary spending power in the hands of law enforcement. This incentivizes law enforcement to seize property. Troublesome federal partnerships would remain intact as well.

FEDERAL LOOPHOLE REMAINS UNADDRESSED

HB4158 does not close a loophole that allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government under its Equitable Sharing forfeiture program.

State and local law enforcement agencies can pass off cases to the feds to circumvent state law. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass the need for a conviction under state law and collect up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program.

For example, California previously had some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but law enforcement would often bypass the state restrictions by partnering with a federal asset forfeiture program known as “equitable sharing.” Under these arrangements, state officials would simply hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds—even when state law banned or limited the practice. During the 2016 legislative session, the state finally closed the loophole.

As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.

Why?

We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its deplorable “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.

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HB4158 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. The committee must approve the bill before it can receive a full House vote.