Erickson: Get rid of policing for profit in Michigan

Angela Erickson

Without so much as charging someone with a crime, Michigan law enforcement agencies can use civil forfeiture to seize property and then fund themselves with the proceeds. A reform package signed last month by Gov. Rick Snyder is a step in the right direction, but Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws still need serious improvement. Even after reform, its laws only scored a “D-” in Policing for Profit, a new report from the Institute for Justice.

The new laws do strengthen property rights protections for Michiganders by raising the legal bar law enforcement must meet to prove property is connected to a crime and forfeit it. They also improve forfeiture transparency. Starting next year, agencies will have to publicly report forfeitures that they haven’t reported in the past and note whether any person was charged and ultimately convicted for the violation asserted during the seizure.

Unfortunately, the reforms left in place the main driver of forfeiture abuse — a potent financial incentive to seize property. Every penny that Michigan’s police, sheriffs, state troopers and drug task forces forfeit goes right into their coffers to be spent on salaries, equipment and other expenses. State and local law enforcement have collected more than $244 million in forfeiture proceeds under state law. One investigation detailed numerous victims of questionable raids and seizures, including patients with medical marijuana cards, an American Red Cross worker and 130 patrons of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit’s “Funk Night.”

Moreover, Michigan law enforcement have received an additional $127 million in forfeiture proceeds by participating in a controversial federal program called “equitable sharing.” With equitable sharing, state and local agencies partner with federal agencies and forfeit property under federal law, even if doing so would circumvent stronger protections provided by state law — such as Michigan’s new reforms. Participating in equitable sharing means state and local agencies can get up to 80 percent of the proceeds of forfeited property. After accounting for drug arrest rates, only seven states make more aggressive use of equitable sharing than Michigan.

Despite a new policy announced by the U.S. Department of Justice intended to curb equitable sharing, the change is unlikely to make much of a difference. The policy largely leaves intact seizures by joint task forces and investigations involving federal agents, which account for 97 percent of Michigan’s equitable sharing proceeds.

Congress was expected to advance federal reform this year to abolish equitable sharing, but it has so far failed to do so. In the meantime, Michigan can and should strictly curtail participation in this abusive program and address the remaining flaws in state law.

Angela Erickson is a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice and a co-author of Policing for Profit.