Keep reforming forfeiture laws

Jarrett Skorup

Law enforcement agencies around Michigan recently released data on civil asset forfeiture in Michigan, and it shows why state lawmakers need to continue reforming this system. Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which law enforcement agencies may take ownership of private property — such as cash and cars — if they suspect it may have been part of the commission of a crime.

Forfeiture is a necessary part of the legal process. But it should only be done after someone is convicted of criminal activity. Unfortunately, current forfeiture laws allow the government to take ownership of property even if the owner is never charged with or convicted of a crime — and that needs to change.

In 2015, the Michigan Legislature passed a package of bills that increased the burden of proof that the state must meet before it may take ownership of private property, and required some basic transparency about the process. The first report, covering most of 2016, was just released. Here are some highlights:

■Law enforcement forfeited (took ownership) $15.3 million in cash, 2,037 vehicles, 806 weapons, and 8 homes.

■At least 10 percent of the people who had their assets transferred to the state were not charged with a crime (523 out of 5,205). Less than half of the people whose assets were forfeited in 2016 were charged with and convicted of a crime that was actually related to the assets they lost (2,490 or 48 percent). The rest are people with charges still pending. This is problematic because it means that the state took ownership of their property before proving these citizens were guilty of anything.

■The majority of law enforcement agencies do not forfeit property from people. According to the report, only 186 out of 470 police departments, 43 out of 80 sheriff departments, and 7 out of 83 prosecuting offices transferred people’s property to public entities. In total, 266 out of 667 law enforcement agencies (40 percent) processed a forfeiture.

■Most forfeitures were processed outside of the legal system. More than four times as many forfeiture cases concluded without a court proceeding as went to court. That’s because the vast majority of people didn’t contest the claim of the property. In many cases, that may be because they knew they were guilty. But in others, as is common, they may simply have decided it wasn’t worth it to hire an attorney to get back a few hundred dollars or an inexpensive vehicle.

■Nearly all the monetary proceeds from forfeited assets went back to local law enforcement agencies. They spent 30 percent on equipment, 10 percent for personnel, 2 percent to nonprofit organizations, and the rest for a variety of categories (overtime, vehicles, informants, etc.).

In 15 other states, law enforcement is required to get a conviction before they can actually take ownership of someone’s assets. This does not affect police work — law enforcement can still seize property based on probable cause while they investigate a crime. But if the prosecutor does not convict a suspect, or if they did not plead guilty to a crime, then they would remain legally innocent and their property would be returned. In the United States, people cannot be locked up without being convicted of a crime. Neither should their property be taken and kept by the government while they are legally innocent.

Jarrett Skorup is a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.