Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has approved and signed a pack of bills intended to restrain law enforcement asset forfeiture and make it more transparent to the public how much money and assets police are keeping for themselves through the process.
Civil asset forfeiture is the process through which law enforcement agencies grab money and property they claim are connected to a crime, seize it, and keep it for themselves. The word "civil" is relevant because often asset forfeiture is completely separated from the criminal justice process. Police and prosecutors don't even have to prove somebody is guilty of a crime in this seizure process. Instead, those faced with losing their property have to navigate a complicated bureaucratic process (where they are not provided a lawyer if they are poor, because again, "civil") to prove that their property is "innocent" of any connections to criminal activity.
Last year Michigan law enforcement agencies raked in at least $24 million in assets through forfeiture, the vast majority of which took place through this civil process.
Certainly civil forfeiture will unfortunately continue under these newly passed reforms, though it will be a little bit harder. The new rules increase the burden of proof threshold for police to seize property. It used to be the lowest possible legal threshold: a simple "preponderance of evidence" showing guilt. The threshold has been bumped up to "clear and convincing" evidence. It's still not as good as the legal threshold of proving somebody is actually guilty of a crime, but maybe it will prevent drug war-fueled asset forfeiture efforts where police insist travelers carrying cash are dealing drugs even when no drugs are found. The new laws also require law enforcement agencies to provide annual reports detailing the monetary value of their seizures. Currently such reporting is not mandated, and the $24 million mentioned previously may actually be an understatement.
Read more from the Detroit Free Press here.