Michigan Just Made It Harder For Police To Take People's Property Without Charging Them

A new reform package will help rein in the practice known as civil asset forfeiture.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) on Tuesday signed a set of bills designed to reform the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to permanently seize cash and property such as houses, vehicles and jewelry without ever charging the owner with a crime.

Under previous rules, police could seize property if a "preponderance of the evidence" indicated it was tied to criminal activity -- meaning police simply had to show that the property was more likely than not to be linked to crime. 

The eight-bill package signed Tuesday includes a measure to raise that standard of proof. While the legislation doesn't affect initial seizure, officials will now have to show "clear and convincing evidence" of the property's connection with crime before they can proceed with the forfeiture process, during which police may auction off property and channel a portion of the proceeds back to their department.

Another provision in the package requires law enforcement agencies to file yearly reports on forfeiture cases and their value.

"Michigan residents deserve transparency from government," Snyder said in a statement, "and these new reporting requirements will raise the bar so that a fair balance is struck between private property rights and law enforcement’s effective ability to do their job in pursuing criminal activity.”

In the past, reporting for many departments has been optional, leading critics to claim that civil asset forfeiture is more widespread -- and more frequently abused -- than the public knows.

The reforms are slated to take effect 90 days after being signed into law.

Snyder's signing of the legislation follows a push from a bipartisan coalition of civil and property rights groups that came together with the help of FixForfeiture, a nonprofit dedicated to overhauling civil asset forfeiture laws around the country. The organizations in the coalition included the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Michigan.

Jarrett Skorup, policy analyst for the Mackinac Center, hailed the passage of the legislation, but said it was problematic that the process of civil forfeiture remained in place.

“The state should not be able to take ownership of someone’s property unless they have been convicted of a crime through the criminal system," Skorup said in a statement. "These bills are a great first step towards improving Michigan’s forfeiture regime, but to fully protect Michigan residents, the state should eliminate civil forfeiture altogether.”

The Mackinac Center and other groups hold that all forfeiture should be tied to criminal proceedings, for which the standard for conviction is "beyond a reasonable doubt." But law enforcement officials insist that civil asset forfeiture is necessary to target criminals like drug dealers, who may not be violating the law at a given time, but could be carrying property that police have reason to believe is linked to a crime.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, said the new legislation made him hopeful that further reform would follow. The institute previously gave Michigan's civil forfeiture laws a D-minus grade.

"Michigan still has work to do, but these bills are a solid first step to overhaul its abysmal civil forfeiture laws and restore constitutional liberties for its citizens," McGrath said. "With greater transparency, state legislators in Lansing will be well-positioned to take the next steps to better protect the due process and property rights of all Michiganders. Michigan proudly joins a growing, nationwide movement to reform civil forfeiture."

Civil asset forfeiture has come under scrutiny over the years as horror stories in Michigan and around the U.S. have suggested that law enforcement agencies use the practice to pad their budgets at the expense of property owners. Critics say this financial incentive has led to a system of policing for profit, with officers prioritizing seizures over public safety.

A joint report by Mackinac and the ACLU published earlier this year details a number of controversial cases in Michigan, including a 2008 incident in which police seized dozens of cars parked outside an art gallery party, all because the venue hadn't obtained a proper liquor license for the event. None of the owners were charged with crimes, but many were forced to fight long and costly legal battles to get their vehicles back.

Last year, a separate report on civil asset forfeiture in Michigan found that agencies had seized nearly $24 million in cash and property in drug cases alone, with $20.4 million of that flowing back to the departments themselves. The actual figure is likely higher, since reporting for the study wasn't mandatory and a number of police forces opted not to send in their data.

Holly Harris, executive director of Fix Forfeiture, said the new protections for property owners and additional reporting standards will help ensure that future numbers reflect a marked improvement.

"Today marks a great step forward in protecting Michigan property rights," she said. "The bills the governor signed into law today ensure the civil asset forfeiture process is fairer and more transparent. We are proud of the bipartisan support this law has attracted and appreciate the leadership shown by the bills' sponsors."

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