Civil Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Mayor Offers Seized Money as a Citizen Reward for Drug Snitching. What Could Go Wrong?

Incentives for neighbors to turn on each other. Incentives for police to find reasons to seize people's stuff and keep it.


Jim Fouts
Jim West/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The mayor of Detroit's largest suburb is offering to spread the city's civil asset forfeiture funds around to citizens who squeal on their neighbors for dealing drugs.

Jim Fouts, the mayor of Warren, Michigan, and Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer announced today a new program where citizens can earn $500 by turning in their neighbors.

The Detroit News explains:

"This program means all Warren residents will be the eyes and ears in our war against drug pushers," Fouts said in a statement.

Dwyer said rewards will come from drug forfeiture funds that the police department uses to fight illegal drugs in the city.

"I've never heard of another city doing something like this," he told The Detroit News in a phone interview. "In other words, we're taking funds from drug dealers to pay residents for information about other drug dealers. Taxpayers are not paying for this."

That is not even remotely how it works. Michigan's asset forfeiture program has little oversight, a huge potential for abuse, and does not require alleged drug dealers even be convicted of a crime before the city can seize their money or assets.

Law enforcement agencies in Michigan can potentially keep 100 percent of what they seize, creating significant financial incentives to accuse citizens of criminal conduct. For those reasons, the property rights-protecting analysts at the Institute for Justice graded Michigan a D- for the way it operates its funds.

Police and mayors attempt to sell civil asset forfeiture as a way of funding government by sticking it to drug dealers, but that's not really what happens. Last year, Traverse City, Michigan, attempted to seize the home of a couple operating a medical marijuana dispensary without charging them with anything. The Detroit Free Press in 2015 highlighted several of cases just like the one in Traverse City.

Saying "taxpayers are not paying" for asset forfeiture is simply not true. Law enforcement agencies across the state raked in $244 million between 2001 and 2013 without ever proving these people are "drug dealers," according to the Institute for Justice.

This program in Warren only adds more twisted incentives. If police raid a property on the basis of these calls, there will be a need to justify the costs—meaning police will want to find some reason to bust the people there. And then, of course, they'll use asset forfeiture to try to take and keep the money and property of those people in order to keep this whole operation going.

And imagine the prospect of a payday for feuding neighbors. You don't actually have to imagine. The Trump administration created a hotline for citizens to report crimes committed against them by illegal immigrants. A look through the logs of the calls they have been getting show people attempting to snitch on their neighbors and get them investigated often without any actual indication they were engaging in any crimes. Read what Splinter uncovered here.