Close to 1,000 people in Michigan had their property seized by police or government officials last year even though they were neither convicted nor sometimes even charged with committing a crime.
That's the bad news. The good news is that we have this information at all. In 2015 Michigan passed legislation that mandated local law enforcement agencies report more information to the state about the extent of their seizures. The Department of State Police just released its first report that encompassed all agencies for a full calendar year.
Law enforcement agencies across the state seized more than $13 million in cash and property in 2017. And while State Police Director Kriste Etue claims in the report's introduction that all those seized assets were "amassed by drug traffickers," that's not really what the numbers show.
Tom Gantert, managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, which is published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, drilled down into the report and noted that 956 people who had their money or property seized last year were not convicted of a crime. Of those, 736 people were not even charged with a crime for which property forfeiture was permitted. And yet such forfeiture happened, quite frequently. To put it in larger context, it happened to 14 percent of the people who had their stuff taken.
Police and prosecutors are able to essentially legally steal people's property under the process of civil asset forfeiture. Under "civil" forfeiture, criminal convictions are not necessary. Instead, police and prosecutors basically accuse the property itself of being connected to a crime. Using lower evidentiary thresholds and complicated bureaucratic and administrative procedures, civil forfeiture subverts the typical legal process by forcing citizens to prove themselves and their property innocent of crimes rather than forcing prosecutors to prove guilt.
Thus citizens can have their stuff taken by the government without being first convicted. There's been a growing backlash to the use of civil asset forfeiture, and some states are attempting to restrain the police by requiring convictions before money and property can be taken. Michigan does not currently require a conviction, but some lawmakers are working on changing the rules. The state's House passed a bill in May that would require convictions before forcing somebody to forfeit property and cash valued at less than $50,000. It has not yet been taken up by the state Senate.
Perhaps knowing that more than one out of 10 folks who have their property taken from them aren't even convicted might be helpful information to convince senators to vote for change. One of the difficulties in pushing for asset forfeiture reforms is that poor transparency requirements have left citizens unclear about how extensive the practice is. Police and prosecutors typically insist that the seizures are all from drug traffickers and other criminals. Without strong reporting guidelines, citizens have no way of knowing the true circumstances of the seizures and where the money is going.
Now, thanks to Michigan's new reporting law, we do know, and it's not a good look for Michigan. Gantert notes that there are currently more than 2,000 folks in Michigan who face having their property seized while charges are still pending. If the law isn't changed, some of those folks may lose their property or money even if they're never convicted.
Bonus links: Damon Root explains how civil asset forfeiture abuse has roots in Michigan from a 1996 Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court will be hearing a case next term that may give it an opportunity to rein in the practice.