Asset Forfeiture

Michigan May Stop Police From Seizing Property Without Getting a Conviction First

Reports show Michigan police seize cash and cars from hundreds of people who are never convicted of a crime. Momentum is building to stop it.

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Junfu Han/TNS/Newscom

In 2017, Michigan police seized property from nearly 1,000 people who were never convicted of a crime. Some of them were never even arrested.

Those numbers—the result of new reporting requirements passed by the state in 2015—have spurred a bipartisan push among Michigan lawmakers to further restrict the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize cash and property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never convicted, or sometimes never charged, with a crime.

The Michigan Senate passed a civil asset forfeiture reform bill last week that would require police to obtain a criminal conviction to seize assets valued under $50,000, or consent from the owner to relinquish the property. The bill is now being considered by the state house.

Jarrett Skorup, a researcher at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, used a public records request to get the underlying data the state used to prepare its annual reports. Skorup's data showed that in 2017, the latest year for which information is available, Michigan police seized $13 million in cash and property—everything ranging from guns to TVs to Playstation 4s to grow lights for marijuana. Bowling balls, jumper cables, power tools, and Beats headphones also made the list.

Those spreadsheets also showed that police, particularly in Wayne County, Michigan, seized thousands of cars in 2017 under the auspices of marijuana enforcement. Of the more than 2,500 vehicles seized, 473 were not accompanied by a criminal conviction, and in 438 of those cases, no one was even charged with a crime, according to Skorup's data. In 10 cases, the cars were seized under suspicion of a drug violation, even though the records say police didn't find any drugs.

"The vehicles are worth very little, typically around $1,000 or $2,000," Skorup says. "These are very likely low-income people, people that can't afford to sit around without a vehicle for three weeks or afford an attorney to go challenge it."

Wayne County prosecutors typically offer to settle such forfeiture cases and return the owner's car for a $900 payment. The alternative is paying out-of-pocket to hire an attorney and fight the forfeiture case, which in many cases would likely exceed the estimated worth of the car.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office reported in 2016 that it surveilled 32 medical marijuana dispensaries, performed 634 investigatory stops of cars leaving dispensaries, and impounded 467 vehicles as part of Operation Push-Off, a local law enforcement initiative targeting drugs, prostitution, and drag racing funded by licensing fees collected from the state's medical marijuana program.

It all adds up to big money for local law enforcement. According to state reports, Wayne County law enforcement received $473,256 in Medical Marihuana Operation and Oversight Grants in fiscal year 2016 and $483,132 in 2017.

As Reason reported, Wayne County's asset forfeiture program is now the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a woman whose car was seized after Wayne County Sheriff's deputies found $10 worth of marijuana in it. The suit claims the seizure and settlement fee were a violation of the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines and fees. (The Supreme Court unanimously ruled earlier this week, in the case of Indiana man challenging the forfeiture of his Land Rover, that the Eighth Amendment applies to states.)

Michigan law enforcement is pushing back against the reform efforts. Testifying at a House committee hearing on the proposed legislation this week, Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police executive director Robert Stevenson said it would essentially subject police to a higher standard than many other areas of government.

"The federal government can seize your money for tax evasion without a criminal conviction," Stevenson told lawmakers. "Geoffrey Fieger has made a very good living seizing people's money without any type of conviction. The state of Michigan can seize your property without a conviction. Any of you can go to small claims court today and get an order to seize somebody's else's property without a conviction."

But others in the state who have watched the practice expand support the bill, such as Ted Nelson, a now-retired Michigan State Police officer who used to train police across the state on how to use civil asset forfeiture.

When Nelson was training law enforcement, he says he emphasized that civil asset forfeiture was supposed to be used only against the direct proceeds of illegal drug sales, and that money was supposed to only fund narcotics enforcement.

Two changes to Michigan law, Nelson says, "opened the floodgates" for civil asset forfeiture in the state. in 2008, Michigan legalized medical marijuana, and police began zealously going after violators—and their property, no matter how loosely connected to drug sales—for forfeiture. Then in 2011, Michigan removed the requirement that forfeiture revenue only fund narcotics enforcement, allowing it to be used for general police budgets with minimal oversight.

"Going around the state and listening to people, [police] were seizing things like money out of birthday cards and lawnmowers, which to me went against the proceeds aspect," Nelson says. "To me, it's not the same thing."

In one case, Nelson says police seized a man and woman's property because their son was growing marijuana close to their house.

"It led [police] to push the law to the edges of what they could do," Nelson continued. "It could be easily abused, and it was being stretched as far as it could possibly be stretched."

According to Skorup's data, for instance, the Wayne State University Police Department seized $9 in cash in a 2017 case that never resulted in a criminal conviction. The Roseville Police Department seized $5 and a cell phone in another case that ultimately did end in a conviction.

While the reporting requirements passed in Michigan in 2015 track what police departments seize, it doesn't track what they spend it on. The head prosecutor of Macomb County, Michigan, is currently under scrutiny from county officials after a public records lawsuit revealed more than $100,000 in questionable expenditures, including using forfeiture funds for office furniture, birthdays, and retirement parties.

More than half of all states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform in the past decade. Police have often opposed those reforms, saying asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking.

Skorup says that, while there are large seizures that net huge amounts of cash, the data shows that it's used most often against petty amounts of money and people who have few resources to defend themselves, rather than El Chapo.

Of the total 2,078 cash seizures by Michigan law enforcement in 2017, the median value was $396, and the average value was $2,042. Overall, Michigan police seized $1.7 million in cash that was not accompanied by a criminal conviction.

"If you look at these files, we're not talking about a couple of flashy cases," he says. "We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of people that are never charged, or even hundreds more where they're charged, found not guilty, and the law enforcement proceeds with the forfeiture anyways."

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33 responses to “Michigan May Stop Police From Seizing Property Without Getting a Conviction First

  1. “The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office reported in 2016 that it surveilled 32 medical marijuana dispensaries, performed 634 investigatory stops of cars leaving dispensaries, and impounded 467 vehicles as part of Operation Push-Off, a local law enforcement initiative targeting drugs, prostitution, and drag racing funded by licensing fees collected from the state’s medical marijuana program.”

    I’ve seen stories mention this a few times. Why are these lousy assholes sniffing around dispensaries? With all the problems in Wayne County – weed (legal or otherwise – and now recreational is legal too) – should be near the bottom of law enforcement’s priority list.

    However, I fear law enforcement is going to cling to marijuana prohibition as it was a perfect bullshit excuse to search and seize just about anything they want. “I smelled marijuana.” “I found a gram of marijuana, guess I have to steal your car now. Sorry!”

    The fact that the Supreme Court hasn’t struck civil asset forfeiture down as completely unconstitutional (recent rulings re: excessive fines, aside) is a travesty. Due Process – what’s that???

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    2. Follow the money.

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  2. The federal government can seize your money for tax evasion without a criminal conviction,” Stevenson told lawmakers. “Geoffrey Fieger has made a very good living seizing people’s money without any type of conviction. The state of Michigan can seize your property without a conviction. Any of you can go to small claims court today and get an order to seize somebody’s else’s property without a conviction.

    WTF is this guy talking about? I can’t speak to what he is referring to regarding the IRS or the state of Michigan. If he could provide specifics I am sure that those against asset forfeiture would be against these as well.

    I had to look up Geoffrey Fieger. He seems to be a sleazeball lawyer who specializes in personal injury and medical malpractice. Apparently this guy wants to equate settlement of a pending lawsuit with forfeiture.

    Can anyone explain to me what he is referring to regarding forfeiture through small claims court? Does he have any assets? I may have a desire to seize them.

    I envision a clickbait headline ‘Seize assets using this trick!’

    1. That small claims court bit got me too. Does he think a small claims court win is not a criminal conviction and therefore does not count?

      1. It’s not criminal, but it is at least reviewed by a judge and is a court judgment.

        This comparison is nonsensical.

  3. Excerpt from the novel, Retribution Fever:

    The obverse had been a practice known as “civil forfeiture”. Innocent until proven guilty was a bedrock principle of U.S. justice. In most states, if a police officer merely suspected that property was connected to a crime, he could seize it without any actual evidence of wrongdoing. Through a federal program called “Equitable Sharing”, police could confiscate eighty percent of seized value. To recover that which was rightfully theirs, Americans must have proven that the property had no connection to a crime.

    [Optional Note for Readers: The practice had begun with the British several hundred years ago in order to deal with pirates beyond the reach of maritime law, judging the goods guilty of the crime, if not the accused. During the War Between the States, the Union adopted the practice to confiscate Northern property owned by Southerners. In 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court in J. W. Goldsmith, Jr.-Grant Co. v. United States endorsed the practice. Early on, however, it dealt more with payment of customs-duties and rarely applied to ordinary citizens until 1984 when Congress created the “Assets Forfeiture Fund” within the Department of Justice supposedly to impede drug-trafficking. The program generalized from there, as do such programs fostering theft by government.]

  4. Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police executive director Robert Stevenson said it would essentially subject police to a higher standard than many other areas of government

    And the problem with that is…what? Does he seriously expect me to buy the argument that police shouldn’t be held to a high standard?

    1. In my experience, police generally prefer to be held to no standard at all. Questioning their authority makes you a dirty commie who hates freedom, or something…

  5. Those pigs are thieves. The “good cops” aren’t saying anything about this.

    1. Actually, some good cops are saying things about this, which is amazing, considering the pressure the crooked cops and the Police Unions (which are crooked by definition) can bring onto them.

      1. It seems that it’s retired cops saying things about this.

  6. How does the new SCOTUS ruling affect this? Is there some kind of loophole if they are not actually charged with a crime?

  7. Something about ‘presumed innocent’?
    If they’re taking stuff before proof of guilt, that concept is pretty much out the window.

  8. A few comments from a Detroiter. First, you are right about the reference to Fieger–he’s an ambulance-chaser who advertises heavily on TV–he’s a general Detroit-area fixture.
    Not sure why there’s a picture of the Cantrell Funeral Home (now out of business). It was the subject of a horrible scandal a few months ago because they ‘forgot’ to dispose of remains of infants, leaving them to rot in upstairs attics. Disgusting, but nothing to do with legalized theft by police departments.
    And, FWIW, the Wayne State cops are really good guys, so I’m not surprised that all they could find was a $9.00 seizure. Furthermore, the area surrounding the university is safer than it is in Ann Arbor, despite what you read about Detroit.

  9. There should have never been the taking of one’s property before a property conviction of a crime. Without that conviction it would be, in my opinion, theft, legal official theft. So if this state makes that decision maybe the rest of the states also decide or maybe the Supreme Court will decide that it is the law of the land.

    1. If it gets seized to get put in an evidence locker, that’s one thing. However, it should be returned upon dismissal or not-guilty verdict. The problem is that it isn’t.

    2. The original justification for civil asset forfeiture was to cover situations when the original owner was unknown (or at least, unprovable) but the property itself was contraband – illegal on its face.

      Consider the following: You are on patrol and see a drug sale on a darkened street corner. You go to arrest the criminals but they get away. During their getaway, however, they drop the kilo of heroin in the middle of the street. Under what legal authority can you pick up the drugs and dispose of them? You can’t just leave it sitting there. It’s a danger to kids. But you didn’t catch the guys so you can’t make an arrest, much less win the conviction. And no one in their right mind is going to come forward to say “those are my drugs.” You could claim you are holding them as evidence but that’s only a temporary solution. Eventually, you need some legal authority to seize the drugs, transfer the ownership to the government and destroy the contraband.

      That original scenario is a very long way from the way CAF is commonly used (and abused). But that original scenario does still exist. Any fix to CAF still has to allow for the seizure and destruction of unclaimed contraband.

      1. You wouldn’t even have to define “contraband”. You could simply mandate that anything sized via CAF must be destroyed. Remove the financial incentive and magically CAF problems would mostly vanished.

      2. Rossami|2.26.19 @ 11:56AM|#

        “You can’t just leave it sitting there. It’s a danger to kids.”

        I see. It’s “for the children.”

  10. Make the police put their budget where their mouths are; allow Asset Forfeiture to continue, with a slight change; if the person whose property was seized successfully challenges, the police return the asset, pay him a fine equal to the asset’s estimated value, and pay his legal fees.

    If asset forfeiture IS a ‘vital tool’ of legitimate law enforcement, then the police should be willing to take the chance.

    But they won’t be.

  11. Alt text: Symbiosis.

  12. This may be a moot case since the recent SCOTUS decision regarding civil asset forfeiture in Indiana.
    The cops in this country have made way too much money from taking property from suspects without the defendants being first declared guilty in a court of law.
    Can you imagine the looks on the cops’ faces when they discovered their seizures are now illegal?

    1. The SCOTUS decision set no boundaries. It simply said CAF might violate civil rights. That’s a start, but still miles away from a Federal court clampdown on CAF.

  13. Civil forfeiture is an abomination that needs to be done away with. Until that happens, I’d really like to see laws that say that any and all forfeiture proceeds must go only into victim’s restitution funds and not police budgets nor general revenues.

  14. Robert Stevenson’s defense of theft is to point to other avenues of government theft. Super dee duper. Ask who the real criminals are here.

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  16. Civil forfeiture without a conviction for a related crime is theft. PERIOD! All the officials involved should be prosecuted for larceny with resulting jail sentences if convicted.

    This must become the law in every state to end the abusive thefts from those not convicted of crimes.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association, Ann Arbor

    1. It is Theft Under Color of Law.

  17. Playing at the margins, that’s what it looks like to this reader, will not do. Legislative bodies must flatly declare, via legislation enacted, that absent an actual conviction or guilty plea, no punishment of any kind is to be inflicted on anyone. Additionally, seizure of personal property of any kind, absent a conviction or guilty plea shall be viewed as, and held to be a violation of the criminal and civil law, with the most sever punishment levied on violators, without exception. That is the only way that this criminal game can be stopped, and stopped it should long since have been. The fact that it carries on still is a flat disgrace. By the way, given that what are supposedly the forces of law and order act in a manner that could well be described as a criminal conspiracy, how the devil can the citizenry be reasonably expected to live within the law?

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  19. MIchigan should, as should every other state, flatly outlaw Asset Forfeiture as this scam is currently practiced, that is essentially punishment of the individual absent accusation or proff of wrongdoing by the individual. The sometimes heard claim running to the effect that “is is not the individual that is punished, it is the item or items seized” is blatant sophistry, aka a flat out falsehood.

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