The Democrats running for state Attorney General represent two wings of the party.
Dana Nessel is a self-described progressive. Pat Miles is more centrist, but he’s shifted some of his positions on issues as he’s talked to Democrats across the state.
We asked each of the candidates about asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property when police think it was bought with illegally gotten money such as drug money.
But, even if those people are not convicted or even charged with a crime, they have to fight in court to get their assets back.
“There were more than 500 people last year that lost assets to the state without even being charged with anything. They weren’t even alleged to have done something wrong,” said Jarrett Skorup with Mackinac Center for Public Policy. (Hear the complete Stateside interview with Skorup here.)
Groups as politically disparate as the Mackinac Center and the American Civil Liberties Union-Michigan have argued for legislation to restrict civil asset forfeiture.
“I’m also one of the few attorneys running for this office that has actually handled dozens of civil asset forfeiture cases,” Dana Nessel said.
She’s running for the Democratic nomination for Michigan Attorney General. She is best known as being instrumental in the case that legalized gay marriage nationally. She’s also been a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney. She has strong feelings about civil asset forfeiture.
“I truly, honestly believe this to be a violation of due process," says Nessel. "What I see all the time is this: people who have never been convicted of a crime, people who have never even been charged with a crime and, you know, the police get a search warrant, they bust down somebody’s door and they take everything. They take all of their cash. They take all of their automobiles. If they have any money in a bank account, they freeze and seize that. (People) have to hire an attorney to basically prove those assets did not come about, did not come into their possession as a result of criminal distribution of narcotics."
She says if elected Attorney General, her office will not use civil asset forfeiture. But, if someone is found guilty in court…
“I don’t mind criminal asset forfeiture. When you have proven someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I think it’s absolutely fair game to go after property that was the result of the narcotics distribution or manufacturing,” Nessel explained.
Her opponent, Pat Miles, most recently worked as U.S. Attorney in Michigan’s Western District. Prior to that, he was a partner in a Grand Rapids law firm. He specialized in business and cable/telecommunications laws.
He agrees there are issues with civil asset forfeiture.
“I believe that really, there’s been abuses of asset forfeiture by the law enforcement agencies and that there have, there are instances, where we should be waiting until there’s been more evidence brought and more of a conviction of when assets should be forfeited,” he stated.
But, then he added he thinks it’s an important tool for law enforcement.
Pat Miles: "There are instances where asset forfeiture is very appropriate, where people are using the proceeds from criminal conduct in terms of, and they should be, that’s what asset forfeiture is about. And so there are instances where it’s appropriate to use asset forfeiture."
Lester Graham: "Before or after conviction?"
PM: “Before conviction. There are instances where it’s appropriate.”
LG: "Can you give me an idea where that would be the case, where due process wouldn’t matter?"
PM: “Well, due process should always matter, and, so, but there is the instance where assets are forfeited from proceeds of large scale drug trafficking, from proceeds of embezzlement and other types of cases like that.”
We went on to talk about other issues and at the end of the interview, like I often do, I asked if he had anything to add.
PM: “Well, we can go back to the asset forfeiture question if you want. I might have a better soundbite for you.”
LG: (laughs) "Okay. That’s fine with me. What do you want us to know about asset forfeiture?"
PM: “Well, I would say that on asset forfeiture, that we should make sure that there’s due process before people’s assets are taken and that in all cases that law enforcement is not allowed to unilaterally seize assets rather than freeze assets.”
LG: "That’s a little different from what you were saying before."
PM: “It is.”
LG: "This is your position?"
PM: “That’s my position.”
Just this month Miles shifted his position on legalization of recreational marijuana, an issue his opponent, Nessel has championed from the start of her campaign.
It will be up to the members of the Michigan Democratic Party Endorsement Convention to make sense of those shifts. They will meet on April 15th to endorse candidates.