Column: Law enforcement calls for forfeiture reform

Theodore Nelson and Steven Miller

In Michigan, innocent people can lose ownership of their property through a process known as civil asset forfeiture. Police can take cash, cars or even a home, all without even having to file a criminal charge against the owner. Michigan lawmakers are considering requiring law enforcement to get a criminal conviction before they can seize and forfeit private property to the government.

As former Michigan law enforcement officers who witnessed firsthand the abuse of forfeiture, we urge legislators to safeguard the rights of property owners and take up House Bill 4158, sponsored by Rep. Peter Lucido. Other bills from Rep. Gary Glenn and Rep. Jim Runestad provide other important protections for people subject to forfeiture.

One of us, Theodore Nelson, served the public for the past 40 years — 26 as a Michigan State Police officer and 14 as a criminal justice instructor. During his career with the MSP, he taught civil asset forfeiture procedure to all state police officers for over 10 years.

The other, Steven Miller, was a sergeant for the Canton Township police department and an officer for nearly 25 years. He was a patrol officer and supervisor for Wayne County’s “operation push-off,” which seized cars and cash and forfeited them for minor legal violations.

The original intention behind civil asset forfeiture was to seize key assets from high-level drug dealers or other serious criminals and funnel that money to police departments, which could then be used to fight more crime. But it has since been used far beyond that original intent. Today in Michigan, forfeiture is mostly used to seize cars and small amounts of cash — less than $3,000 on average. And most problematically, according to the most recent state report, more than 500 people — just last year — had their assets transferred to the state without even being charged with a crime.

We witnessed people guilty of only minor violations, or innocent altogether, who had hundreds of dollars or their vehicles seized and forfeited. When that happens, it would often be more expensive to file a lawsuit — not to mention the time and effort involved — than to just let the police keep the property. This is primarily why in Michigan 80 percent of people who lost their property in 2016 did so absent a court proceeding. Police know this, and they know that if the owner doesn’t fight the forfeiture, the profits go back to the police department. Some agencies seize money with a goal of just bolstering their budgets.

It’s become easier over the last several years for law enforcement to seize property. For instance, because Michigan’s medical marijuana laws are new and generally open for interpretation, it’s easy for police to find a rationale for seizing property from someone in that industry. Not all police departments agree on how to interpret the statute, which leads to arbitrary enforcement. That’s not how policing should work. It’s unfair to citizens and it undermines the police’s primary purpose: fighting crime and helping victims.

Any police officer can tell you that his or her job is exponentially more difficult when the community doesn’t trust law enforcement. Any time we investigate a crime, we depend on witnesses to identify suspects and point out crucial evidence. People who have had their property taken by police — or know someone who has — don’t assist with investigations, because they don’t feel we have their best interests at heart. The safety of the entire community suffers when law enforcement prioritize civil forfeiture over real crime fighting.

Law enforcement can only be effective with support and trust from the public it serves. Civil asset forfeiture undermines that trust. These bills need to be instituted so that law enforcement can refocus on protecting and serving. This would re-affirm the public’s constitutional right per the 14th Amendment: “No state shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

We think forfeiture can be a valid tool for law enforcement. Criminals should not be able to keep the assets they gained through illegal activity. But judges and juries should decide whether a person is guilty before the government gains control of someone’s property.

Theodore Nelson is a retired officer from the Michigan State Police. Steven Miller is a retired sergeant from the Canton Township Police Department.