Michigan legislators have introduced a pair of bills that would
reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws, which currently enable
law enforcement agencies to seize property from innocent people
easily and profitably. Michigan police departments and district
attorneys have padded their budgets to the tune of $70 million in
the last three years via forfeiture, according to Lee McGrath of
the Institute for Justice,* a law firm that litigates asset
HB 5213 would require a criminal conviction before the
police and prosecutors can forfeit property. Such a change is
desirable because Michigan police and prosecutors have an
unfortunate habit of taking peoples’ stuff even when the criminal
charges that supposedly justify the forfeiture are dropped,
dismissed, or otherwise jettisoned.
HB 5081, meanwhile, would require seizing agencies to compile
detailed reports on their forfeiture activities. Such a change is
desirable because, apart from aggregates and anecdotes, information
(on what is being seized, from whom, and why) is hard to come by.
Also, transparency may encourage police to use funds more
“Asset forfeiture was sold as a needed tool for law enforcement
to attack drug kingpins and gang leaders,” says Rep. Jeff Irwin
(D-Ann Arbor), sponsor of HB 5213. “[But] too often, law
enforcement uses the current asset forfeiture law to take tens of
millions of dollars every year, mostly from low-level users and
Of course, the law routinely
innocent people. We find out about them when they go to court.
But some not-inconsequential number of forfeitures involve innocent
owners who opt against a legal fight to recover items worth less
than the cost of a lawyer.
Still, Irwin’s statement is probably an accurate description of
many forfeitures. Law enforcement was given the power to forfeit
property sans criminal conviction in order to target notorious
underworld characters and their conspicuous displays of wealth (for
the children! lest they grow up idolizing drug lords). Instead,
police use civil forfeiture to bust low-level offenders—at the
expense of other duties.
Unfortunately, while both the bills would make for improved
policy, neither would put forfeiture abuse to bed. Stephen Dunn, a
Troy, Michigan-based attorney suggests to the Michigan Capitol
Confidential that more complete reform:
requires notification to the property owner within a certain
amount of time, criminal proceedings within a timeframe, the
release of seized funds if they are required to pay for legal
defense, a way for property to be returned and litigation costs
paid if a defendant is not successfully prosecuted by the
Additionally, neither bill addresses federal equitable sharing,
a program that allows local police to turn their cases over to the
feds. Police do so in order to sidestep state forfeiture laws that
contain stronger protections for property owners than federal law.
As the federal government is behind some of the
most officious abuses of forfeiture in Michigan, this is not a
But the perfect need not be the enemy of the good. Either or
both bills will improve prospects for property owners unfairly
separated from their belongings.
*I work part-time for the Institute for Justice on a project
unrelated to forfeiture.
from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/12/28/michigan-legislators-consider-making-it