House leader, AG get behind bills on asset forfeiture
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — New Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield asked Democrats to join him Wednesday as he unveiled the first legislation of the two-year term, bipartisan bills that would limit law enforcement’s ability to take ownership of property in cases that do not result in convictions.
The move differs from 2017 and 2015, when the GOP majority’s initial measures — to eliminate the state income tax and repeal the “prevailing” wage construction law — were opposed by Democrats and then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
The GOP-led Senate, which also opened its session Wednesday, will not introduce legislation until next week.
“We can work together, and we will work together,” said Chatfield, who was joined at a post-session news conference by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, House Minority Leader Christine Craig and other lawmakers.
The first bill of the session is a bipartisan one, he said, to reinforce the need to find compromise to operate state government efficiently in an era of divided government. Nessel and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office last week, succeeding Republicans.
The legislation is modeled after a bill that won bipartisan approval in the House in May but died in the Senate. It would prohibit prosecutors from permanently confiscating assets thought to be associated with drug crimes unless a defendant is convicted, has entered into a plea agreement or no one claims any interest in the property. The measure would not apply in police seizures of property and currency worth more than $50,000, excluding the value of contraband.
About 80 percent of forfeitures involve drug cases. Legislators may soon propose another bill covering forfeitures in prostitution, gambling and other cases.
“It is important that we require a conviction in order to forfeit people’s assets,” said Nessel, a former local prosecutor and defense attorney who took office last week. “I’ve had the opportunity to see the way it really impacts people. When you talk about ensuring due process for everyone, this is an important step in the right direction.”
Other bills introduced Wednesday would make 18 the minimum age for marriage and repeal a 2011 law that taxes more retirement income. Other legislation would subject the Legislature and governor’s office to public-records requests. Michigan is one of just two states to wholly exempt the governor from open-records laws. It is among eight states where the legislature is explicitly exempt.
The House in 2016 and 2017 overwhelmingly passed similar bills , but they went nowhere in the Senate — which now has many new senators who supported the legislation when they were in the House.
“The people have a right to know what their government is doing and we have the responsibility to tell them the truth. And we won’t stop until we get it done,” Chatfield said.
New Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, told The Associated Press this week that he is “very willing” to discuss expanding the Freedom of Information Act to include lawmakers and the governor. But he expressed concerns, including over accommodating the use of newer technology to communicate, despite calling transparency a “good thing.”
He said he used to serve on a school board, and FOIA made members hesitant about documents that could be subject to public records requests.
“I think it inhibits debate, not promotes debate,” Shirkey said. “I’m not as much of an advocate on this as some people are.”