Michigan State Police defend asset forfeiture laws as ‘critical’ tool, open to reforms

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LANSING, Mich. -- Lawmakers on Tuesday debated bills aimed at reforming Michigan's civil asset forfeiture laws to make it more difficult for police to seize property from individuals suspected of being involved in criminal activity.

It's an issue showing up in headlines across the country and here in Michigan, where police take money, property and even homes from individuals, in many cases before that person has ever been charged with a crime. Just this week, the story of a 22-year-old from Michigan made national headlines after DEA agents seized $16,000 in cash from him while he was riding on an Amtrak train to Los Angeles. He was not detained or charged with a crime, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

In Michigan, more than $24 million in cash and assets were seized from Michiganders in 2013, according to the most recent asset forfeiture report available from Michigan State Police.

Since 2000, more than $250 million in forfeiture revenue has been collected by Michigan law enforcement agencies.

Tuesday, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, lawmakers explained why increased transparency and uniformity in reporting of forfeitures by law enforcement is needed.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who has been pushing for several years to reform the state's forfeiture laws, said more uniform reporting would provide a clearer picture of how police are using the law and who they're using it on.

“If you’ve got folks out there that are medical marijuana patients… there’s no way they should be getting raided and having police come in with masks and guns drawn and taking their assets," Irwin said.

"But what I hear from the police is ‘we need this tool to take down crack dealers outside the elementary school peddling to kids,’ so which is it?”

Sgt. Amy Dehner, an 11 year veteran and legislative liaison with the Michigan State Police, testified Tuesday before the committee saying the practice is critical in the process to stop drug trafficking.

“As long as that cash and those assets continue to flow, whether they can sell a car, a house, stolen TVs, if they can turn that into cash, they continue to allow that illegal business to flourish," she said. “Our ability to intercede in that process is critical.

Following the hearing, Dehner told FOX 17 she doesn't agree with the assessment that individuals who have had their assets seized through forfeiture laws are being treated 'guilty until proven innocent.'

"I think that’s largely the view of the media and trying cases in the papers," she said. "To say someone is guilty before they go to court is not something the police engage in."

Dehner acknowledged defendants in asset forfeiture cases have to prove their innocence, rather than the burden being on the government or the state to prove the individual is guilty. When asked if that seemed to contradict the standard 'presumption of innocence' generally followed in the justice system, she said the standards for civil asset forfeitures are different from other standards prosecutors and law enforcement follow.

The package of bills making its way through the legislature in Lansing would also raise the standards for evidence by requiring it be 'clear and convincing.' Currently, police agencies only need a 'preponderance' of evidence that can prove 'more probable than not' that illegal activity is taking place.

In February, Wally Kowalski of Van Buren County told FOX 17 his home had been raided by the Michigan State Police before he had ever been charged with a crime.

Kowalski, who has a Ph.D from Penn State University and a background in engineering and specializes in ultraviolet light technology, had been a medical marijuana card holder for several years. He was growing the drug for medicinal use for himself and several designated patients at a home that’s been in his family for decades when it was raided by the Michigan State Police’s Southwestern Enforcement Team in September 2014.

Nationally, civil asset net forfeitures rose to $4.2 billion in 2012, which was up from $1.7 billion in the preceding year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, introduced reform legislation of his own earlier this year dubbed the FAIR Act, that would restore the Fifth Amendment’s role in civil forfeiture proceedings.

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