Editorial: Court puts limit on police stealing

The Detroit News

A state court has broken up one of the biggest theft rings in Michigan. The state Supreme Court should let the ruling stand and the Legislature should enshrine it in law.

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently ruled that a key provision of the civil forfeiture law violates the due process rights of defendants.

It is a welcome decision and long overdue. State and local law enforcement agencies use civil forfeiture to steal the property of people who not only are never convicted of a crime, but often are never even charged with one.

It is a perversion of justice that should have never passed constitutional muster.

The appellate court ruled in the case of Shantrese Kinnon, who was arrested along with her husband in Kent County on drug charges.

After searching the couple’s home, police seized several pieces of property, including an SUV, a pickup, a motorcycle, laptop computer and $400 in cash.

That’s become standard operating procedure for drug arrests. Officers move through a home like burglars, grabbing everything of significant value under the pretense they might have been purchased with the illegal gains from narcotics trafficking.

But the Kinnons were never convicted of the charges for which they were arrested, nor for any other crime.

And yet when Shantrese Kinnon challenged the property seizures and tried to get her vehicles and other valuables returned, she couldn’t because she was unable to post the required 10 percent bond.

In her case, that amounted to $2,000, which she didn’t have.

In most forfeiture cases, even if the person whose property was taken can post the bond, getting their stuff back can still cost hundreds or thousands of dollars because it most often requires hiring an attorney and paying other fees.

So in effect they are being punished without being convicted. Often, defendants choose to let police have their belongings rather than go through the long and expensive process of getting it back.

It’s a lucrative scheme for law enforcement agencies. A report from the Michigan State Police found that in 2014 forfeitures netted police departments $24 million.

And they get to keep it all. For most departments, revenue from property seizures makes up a significant part of their budgets.

That creates a perverse incentive for agencies to grab as much property as they can, and do everything possible to hang onto it, even bargaining with defendants to drop charges in exchange for their seized assets.

Forfeiture is legalized theft, and should not be part of a legal system that purports to value justice.

If a defendant is convicted of a crime and prosecutors can make the case that the proceeds of the illegal activity were used to purchase property, an argument can be made for seizure. But that should come only after conviction.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, has introduced a bill to eliminate the bond requirement on forfeiture challenges. That’s a good first step.

The Legislature should pass broader reforms that get police entirely out of the business of stealing other people’s property.