Reform civil forfeiture laws

The Detroit News

Police in Michigan can seize private money or property based simply on a suspicion of guilt or involvement with criminal activity, even if the suspect has committed no crime and is never convicted of one.

Civil asset forfeiture, as it's formally called, circumvents the constitutional premise that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, and needs serious reform.

Michigan's laws surrounding forfeiture are some of the worst in the nation. Several bills already introduced in the state House would reform civil forfeiture laws to prohibit seizure unless a person is convicted of a crime and to force transparency in the forfeitures that do take place.

The new Legislature must make these bills a priority.

A relic of the war on drugs, civil asset forfeiture was originally designed to curtail major drug trafficking. Police, for example, could stop a drug lord suspected of carrying millions of dollars of cocaine and seize the drugs or money immediately.

But the program today has no real limitations, and incentives to abuse the system are rampant. In Michigan, 100 percent of seized proceeds go to law enforcement. Many agencies have become dependent on that revenue.

The state has taken at least $250 million since 2000 to fund things like new vehicles, crime-fighting programs and other services.

In Michigan, cash or property worth more than $50,000 requires a court proceeding to be seized. But lesser amounts can be taken administratively and without the hassle of going before a judge. That's how 89 percent of assets were taken in 2012.

The standard used to judge whether property is related to a crime and therefore subject to forfeiture in Michigan is "a preponderance of the evidence." That's disturbingly much less proof than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard required to convict someone under criminal law.

Many targets for forfeiture are individuals suspected of low-level drug offenses. But small businesses and even individuals who get pulled over with cash in the car unrelated to drug trafficking can have the money seized.

Even if never convicted, victims lose money and time trying to recoup their property, and some never see it again.

Civil forfeiture is also federally sanctioned. The Department of Justice seized a record $4 billion in assets in 2012 and another $2 billion in 2013.

But there's been little political pushback until recently, and the U.S. Supreme Court has done little to curb civil forfeiture abuses throughout the country.

One bill in the Michigan package would require more transparency on forfeitures — monthly reports on alleged crimes committed, information on whether individuals were ever convicted, type and value of seized properties, and other details about the process.

A separate bill would prohibit civil forfeiture unless an individual is convicted of a crime.

The Legislature should begin the process of reform by changing Michigan's overreaching laws.