Gov. Rick Snyder (R) recently signed into law an eight-bill package that aims to reform Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws. These laws allow the police to take citizens’ property, including televisions, cars, cash and houses, if it is believed to have been used in or acquired by way of criminal activity. The police department is then free to use those assets as it sees fit. Even if a person is not charged or convicted of a crime, he or she is assumed guilty and must go to court to get their property back.
The reform legislation raises the standard for civil asset forfeiture from a preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing evidence. It has also increased the reporting and transparency of civil asset forfeiture. These changes are necessary and long overdue, but they are also not nearly enough. It is imperative that the standard of civil asset forfeiture is raised to “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the highest level of proof in the legal system. Further, the citizen must be presumed innocent and the funds raised by civil asset forfeiture must be used for the state’s general fund, not primarily for police departments. Only then could this matter of civil asset forfeiture be considered resolved.
Civil asset forfeiture laws became widely used throughout the United States as part of the War on Drugs in the early 1980s. The rationale behind these laws, generally, is that they deter criminal activity, punish criminals, prevent further criminal activity and raise funds for more crime-fighting. When used correctly, these laws make sense. Few would argue against the police confiscating contraband or using a drug lord’s profits from drug sales to help catch more criminals. However, it isn’t clear that this is how these laws actually play out. In fact, these laws have recently come under scrutiny because of many abuses that have been highlighted in the media, both in Michigan and nationwide.
An example of this abuse was reported by the Detroit Free Press, which details how a 72-year-old disabled cancer patient with a medical marijuana card was accused by the police of selling marijuana, then was handcuffed and had his house searched. The police found that he had extra marijuana seedlings, but never charged him with a crime. His personal property, including $11,000 in cash and his Dodge Journey, was still taken by the police. Many similar stories have surfaced, suggesting that this shakedown of a medical marijuana card-holder for money was not an isolated incident. Since there are legal and financial barriers to regaining property taken under civil asset forfeiture, many of these wrongs go uncorrected. According to the Michigan State Police, more than $24.3 million in cash and assets in 2013 were seized from Michigan citizens. The majority of these seizure cases went uncontested in court, despite the fact that many were not charged with a crime.
It has become increasingly apparent that civil asset forfeiture laws are designed in a way that at best does little to limit abuses and at worst encourages them. When police can profit from targeting individuals and squeezing them for their assets, it is hardly surprising that they do so.
The reforms signed into law by Snyder will make it slightly more difficult for police to abuse civil asset forfeiture. The government will be held to a higher standard to keep the seized property, but the burden will still be on the citizen to cough up legal fees and prove his or her innocence. The police still have incentive to abuse the laws, but their use of these laws will be documented more thoroughly and examined more carefully. Undoubtedly, abuses will decrease as a result of these reforms, but there is not enough protection for Michiganders.
Reform of civil forfeiture laws should not stop until the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture are used for Michigan’s general fund and the standards for seizing property are raised. The Institute for Justice recommends raising these standards by requiring a conviction before taking someone’s property. Michigan should follow this advice to make sure that the abuses stop and, considering the prevalence of this problem across the nation, other states should listen, too.
The abuses in the criminal justice system are simply too rampant, with the nation learning of something new nearly every day. While there is significant room for improvement in many aspects, at the very least, the police should be stopped from taking people’s possessions prior to a conviction.