Michigan's civil asset forfeiture system under scrutiny
Lansing — Gin Hency and Annette Shattuck describe themselves as soccer moms, active in their communities and in their children's lives.
Since July 2014, the St. Clair County women have shared another similarity: Both of their homes were raided by the St. Clair County Drug Task Force. Hency and Shattuck are registered medical marijuana caregivers. Among the things taken in the raid were their medical marijuana cards issued by the state, televisions, a bicycle and documents including driver's licenses and insurance cards.
"It was devastating," Shattuck said.
Hency and Shattuck were charged with marijuana-related counts several months after the raids. Three of the six charges against Shattuck were dismissed. Both charges against Hency were dismissed this month, but she has still been unable to reclaim her property.
They are just two examples of people impacted by civil asset forfeiture in Michigan, a process by which someone's assets may be forfeited if the property is judged to be related to crime, regardless of whether that person is ever charged or convicted. That's because someone's assets are tried in civil court, separate from the criminal process.
House Republicans listed civil asset forfeiture reform as one of their priorities for this legislative session. A bipartisan package of bills, approved by a House committee last week, would make changes including raising the standard for forfeiture to the highest in civil court, one of clear and convincing evidence rather than a preponderance of the evidence.
The bills would also require detailed reports from local police to the state police on property forfeited. Reporting is now required for forfeited assets related to drug crimes, but not for other criminal activities. The Michigan State Police has not taken a position on the package, but a representative at a committee hearing expressed support for the added transparency.
Rep. Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat and a sponsor of the package, said the new reporting requirements would help show how forfeiture is used around the state.
"To the extent it demonstrates these tools are being used against real drug kingpins, I think that will put the public's mind at ease to some extent. I think that what we're hearing anecdotally, which is very concerning, is that the tool is being turned against regular citizens too often," he said.
Stephen Guilliat, chief assistant prosecutor for St. Clair County, couldn't comment specifically on cases like Hency and Shattuck's but said checks and balances are in the forfeiture system to make sure it's done right. The office considers the rulings in criminal cases when determining what to do with assets going through civil court, but the outcome in one case doesn't necessarily impact the outcome in the other, he said.
Asset forfeiture is a tool that's used to make sure crime doesn't pay, Guilliat added, and all of the money generated by the process "goes right back to the enforcement of the criminal laws of the state of Michigan."
"We will help fund things that otherwise we wouldn't be able to do," he said.
Some advocates for reform say that's part of the problem.
The system "creates an incentive for police to be more aggressive with enforcement" as they look to fill holes in their budgets, Irwin said.
Shattuck said the reforms would be "a small step forward."
"Anything that is opening the conversation on reform is definitely a good thing because people are going to become more aware of it," Shattuck said. "Because when we tell our story people say, 'That doesn't happen. That doesn't happen in America, they can't take your stuff without charging you.'"
Even some who were once part of the forfeiture process now advocate for reform.
Steve Miller worked for the Canton Police Department for 18 years, including five years on a special weapons and tactics team. He retired as a sergeant and now is a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group supporting legalization and regulation of drugs.
He said after his time being involved with forfeiture in Wayne County, he believes the description of "policing for profit" is appropriate.
Several other states have made changes to their civil asset forfeiture laws this year. New Mexico and Montana recently changed their laws to require a conviction for assets to be forfeited.
Irwin introduced legislation last session that would require a conviction for forfeiture in Michigan. The bill never received a hearing.
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