Michigan has made great strides to reforming civil forfeiture — the process that allows law enforcement to take someone’s property and forfeit it to the government. But Michigan still has laws that are among the weakest in the nation when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of citizens.
In 2015, legislators passed a package of bills that created new transparency requirements for forfeited assets and raised the standard of evidence the government must meet before owning anyone’s property. As a result, we will now be able to find out how much property and money is forfeited each year and how the assets were used. And courts now can only find someone guilty when there is “clear and convincing” evidence rather than the previous standard of just a “preponderance” of evidence.
Legislators passed further reform concerning bond requirements related to forfeiture. Michigan was one of five states that required an upfront bond in order for citizens to challenge a forfeiture. If law enforcement seized property, the owner would have to pay 10 percent of the worth of the assets in order to try to get it back. Even if a person was never found guilty, they could lose their cash. The law ending that bond requirement was signed by Gov. Snyder on Jan. 3.
These were much needed reforms, but lawmakers should go further. Government entities are still able to take ownership of property without proving a person’s guilt. And the assets go back to the law enforcement offices which originally seized them, meaning there is a financial incentive to abuse this process. There are many examples of this:
Kenneth and Mary Murray of Traverse City have no current charges filed against them, but a local narcotic team is trying to take thousands of dollars and their house.
Tarik Dehko and his daughter Sandra George had $35,000 seized by the IRS from funds for their grocery store in Fraser. The feds never pressed charges and were forced to return the money only after a public outcry.
Gerald and Royetta Ostipow had their property seized by Saginaw County police, including a classic muscle car. Law enforcement found marijuana on property they owned — occupied by their son — but they lost some of their property anyway without ever being charged with a crime.
These are just a few recent examples. The state takes at least $20 million every year in assets from people, often with no charges ever being filed.
This system needs to change. Ten states require law enforcement to convict a person of a crime before taking ownership of their property. Rep. Peter Lucido introduced House Bill 4158 which would add Michigan to the list. New Mexico, Nebraska, and North Carolina went further, banning the practice of civil forfeiture altogether. There, citizens must be convicted of a crime and then law enforcement must demonstrate in criminal court that the activity led to ill-gotten gains.
2017 is a new year and a new legislative term. A poll of Michigan citizens’ shows 90 percent believe people should be convicted of a crime before someone’s property can be transferred to the state. Let’s make that a reality.
Jarrett Skorup is a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, Mich.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.