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Editorial: Stop grabbing property

The Detroit News

Michigan may be finally taking a step to reform one of the greatest abuses of government power — civil asset forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies have turned what was supposed to be a crime-fighting tool into legalized theft, and lawmakers should severely limit the practice.

An eight-bill package in the House Judiciary Committee attempts to bring fairness and justice to civil asset forfeitures. They don’t go nearly far enough, but the proposals are an important start.

Civil forfeitures have become an important revenue stream for law enforcement agencies, and that creates conditions for abuse.

The core problem, as described by Shira Rawlinson of the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit group based on Arlington, Va., is that civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take property on the mere suspicion that a crime has been committed.

Unlike criminal forfeiture, she says, civil forfeiture allows the government to permanently seize and keep cash, cars, homes, businesses and other property without charging — let alone convicting — anyone of a crime.

The Michigan package attempts to give those whose property was seized in such a manner their day in court. The legislation increases transparency and accountability by instituting public reporting requirements on all governmental entities that seize private property under Michigan’s drug, criminal and public nuisance laws.

The bills also change the burden of proof for prosecutors seeking to grab property. Instead of the current standard requiring that property is “more likely than not” connected with criminal activity, this legislation raises the standard to “clear and convincing evidence.”

That’s a vital change that hopefully will end some of the more egregious seizures.

Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, the lead legislator for the package, notes “the bills are aimed at protecting people’s rights to their property and gives them the due process allowed under the Constitution.”

Civil forfeiture remains one of the greatest threats to property rights in America. Expanded by Congress under the Patriot Act, the government now requires banks to report deposits of more than $10,000, and can arbitrarily freeze or empty bank accounts when transactions above that amount occur.

Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., have passed comprehensive forfeiture reform while Georgia and Utah have enacted reporting requirements aimed at increasing transparency.

If civil forfeiture is allowed to continue, the guiding principle should be that no property is seized without a criminal conviction. It is a perversity for a law to encourage police departments and prosecutors to behave as thieves.

There is also legislation pending in Congress to restrict civil asset forfeiture. But Michigan shouldn’t wait. The state must pass these bills to protect citizens’ property rights.