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Groups: End Police Confiscation Of Assets If No Conviction

By DAVID EGGERT/Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Two groups from opposite sides of Michigan's political spectrum want to end law enforcement's ability to seize and take ownership of cash, homes and vehicles from people who are not convicted of crimes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy released a report Tuesday calling for a ban against civil forfeiture, a process by which prosecutors can go to civil court to permanently confiscate assets thought to be associated with criminal activity. The state should only allow forfeiture through the criminal court system after there is a conviction, the organizations said.

The study found that Michigan law enforcement agencies reported more than $272 million in forfeiture proceeds related to alleged drug crimes from 2001 to 2013. The total value is likely larger but unknown due to weak reporting requirements, according to the report, which includes stories of residents whose money and other property were taken without charges being filed.

"Nobody has a right to stolen property or to goods, the fruit from a poison tree," said Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst with the Mackinac Center in Midland. "But (legislation should) require ... that law enforcement convict somebody of a crime before they actually forfeit the property over."

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Dan Korobkin said civil asset forfeiture is "an embarrassment and a gross distortion of our system of justice."

The report also calls on the GOP-led Legislature to reduce incentives for police and prosecutors to abuse civil forfeiture to "pad their budgets." Instead of letting proceeds flow directly to law enforcement budgets, the study says, Michigan should require that assets be transferred to the state general fund, to local elected officials to determine how the money should be spent or to underfunded teacher and state employee retirement systems.

House-approved bills pending on the Senate floor would require agencies that seize or forfeit property to make detailed reports to state police and raise the standard for forfeiture in civil court to one of clear and convincing evidence rather than a preponderance of the evidence. Reporting is required for forfeited assets related to suspected drug crimes, but not for other suspected criminal activities.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, said Tuesday he supports the legislation and called it a "good team effort."

The bills do not - as the groups would like - propose eliminating civil asset forfeiture. But advocates said boosting transparency requirements would be a positive initial step toward ultimately moving forfeiture solely into criminal court.

Lawmakers should be amenable to more sweeping changes once they have better data in hand, said Holly Harris, executive director of Fix Forfeiture, a bipartisan advocacy organization pushing forfeiture legislation in Michigan and elsewhere.

"It's inevitable that reforms will continue," she said.

© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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