More reform needed on property seizures

Ending Michigan’s bond rule marked progress in civil asset forfeiture reform. Yet the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” study still gives Michigan a D-minus grade for its asset forfeiture laws, and better protection is needed.

Gov. Rick Snyder began the new year by signing legislation to make it easier and cheaper for Michigan citizens to get back property seized by police. It was an important step, but the state still must do more to fix its civil asset forfeiture law.

The new law prohibits the state from charging bonds to challenge forfeitures in court. Previously, Michigan required those whose property had been grabbed to pay 10 percent of its value before mounting a challenge.

The requirement particularly kept the poor, who couldn’t afford bond, from recovering property wrongfully taken from them by the police. Even if a case against then never resulted in charges or criminal convictions, their property still wasn’t returned.

The repeal of the bond requirement represents some progress in civil asset forfeiture reform. Still, the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” study gives Michigan a D-minus grade for its asset forfeiture laws.

The best solution is simple: End civil asset forfeiture altogether.

Michigan police departments have used civil asset forfeiture to seize more than $244 million in the past 13 years.

The practice lets police departments take property they believe was gained from or was involved in criminal activity. It’s a very subjective assessment, based entirely on the officers’ suspicions. Police don’t have to prove in court that property is connected to criminal activity before they take it, effectively eliminating due process.

In Michigan, law enforcement agencies can keep 100 percent of the profits from asset seizures. States like Indiana make police departments send forfeiture profits to the state school fund. If Michigan keeps civil asset forfeiture at all, then police departments should not be allowed to retain profits. This provides an incentive to grab property to fatten police budgets.

The Michigan Legislature also made it more difficult last year for the police to seize property by raising the burden of proof from “a preponderance” to “clear and convincing.” The Legislature needs to raise the standard even more and demand criminal convictions before property can be taken. Any bar lower than a criminal conviction amounts to government-authorized theft.

Only two states, Nebraska and New Mexico, currently demand criminal convictions before police can take property.

Michigan should become the third by passing a law introduced last week by Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, requiring a criminal conviction before property is seized.

New laws do require police departments to keep records of asset forfeitures and report them to the state. These restrictions are wins for transparency, but the same problems still remain: Police can take and keep property from innocent people.

Civil asset forfeiture reform has not been a partisan issue. In a joint press release, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Mackinac Center praised lawmakers for Michigan’s recent criminal justice reforms. But both institutions agree there is more to be done.

The Legislature should put an end to this abusive government power and allow the police only to seize property after a criminal conviction has been reached and a court decides taking the assets is appropriate.

— THE DETROIT NEWS