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House speaker throws support behind asset forfeiture changes

Bruce Bortin

There’s bipartisan interest in the state Legislature in protecting Michiganders from having property unfairly seized by police.

State House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, wrote in the Detroit News this week that Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws need to be revisited. He says too many people never convicted of a crime are having their assets taken so that police departments can profit.

“The simple truth is our widely criticized law allows law enforcement to boost their budgets at auction with little or no responsibility. Most Michiganians have no idea this takes place, and many who do have seen their lives turned upside down with no way to hold the state responsible when mistakes are made,” wrote Cotter.

“These cases sound like isolated incidents of corruption and abuses of power, but they are far from it. This is state law, and the police who conduct the raids are well within their legal right to seize and sell the property of the innocent and guilty alike and bury the results. It is well past time to bring some accountability into the system.”

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, has introduced bills in the past to change Michigan’s asset forfeiture law. He is applauding the speaker for taking up the issue.

“I think there’s really broad interest from both sides of the aisle on trying to make sure that this tool is used appropriately and it’s used against individuals who are actually guilty of some sort of crime,” Irwin said.

“When I found out that citizens who were not found guilty were being punished, I thought it was a fundamental problem in American criminal justice where we were turning on its head that whole concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”

Irwin’s proposal would require that property can be seized only if a person is convicted of a crime. Past Republican state House leaders have not been eager to take up Irwin’s bills.

Cotter has promised to hold public hearings on the issue this term – although it’s not clear what kind of legislation he will choose to pursue.

Law enforcement groups have said in the past that current civil asset forfeiture laws are an effective way to fight criminal operations. A number of those groups were contacted for this story but have not returned requests for comment.