Our Editorial: End civil asset forfeiture abuse

The Detroit News

Michigan has made improvements to its civil asset forfeiture laws in the past year. But the best solution remains to get rid of the policy altogether in cases in which there’s been no criminal conviction.

As the federal government wrongly looks to make it even easier to seize citizens’ property, the state should push in the opposite direction. Specifically, it should be illegal for law enforcement to take and keep property from a person who has not been convicted of a crime.

Thanks to new reporting requirements enacted into law in Michigan, it’s become clear just how abusive the state’s asset forfeiture laws really are.

A new report from the Michigan Department of State Police shows that last year charges were never filed in nearly 10 percent of the cases that collected more than $15 million in forfeited cash and property. State, county and local agencies documented 5,290 civil asset forfeitures. But no one was charged with a crime in 523 of those instances, and in another 196 cases, people were charged but not convicted.

After selling items or donating property, police reported $12.3 million in net proceeds between Feb. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016.

That’s outrageous.

But when there’s an incentive — under Michigan’s forfeiture laws, police get to keep 100 percent of what they confiscate — those numbers are hardly a surprise. The practice is ripe for abuse.

Michigan police departments have used civil asset forfeiture to seize more than $244 million in assets over the past 13 years.

Legislation is pending would require a criminal conviction to initiate forfeiture proceedings. That would shift the seizure standard from “clear and convincing evidence” to the “beyond a reasonable doubt"required to convict someone under criminal law.

Civil asset forfeiture has been thrust into the spotlight with Attorney General Jeff Session’s recent directive that the practice be renewed by state-level law enforcement.

Asset forfeiture absolutely undermines the rule of law.

The Constitution explicitly prohibits government from taking property without due process. Conservatives pride themselves on adhering to constitutional values. Forfeiture isn’t a conservative or constitutional value, and it certainly shouldn’t be pushed by an administration that claims it cares about such things.

Twelve states require a criminal conviction before forfeiture can proceed, and two states have banned the practice altogether.

Michigan should join this growing number of states with common-sense to modify a practice tied to the failed war on Drugs.

Sessions is on the rocks in the Trump administration, for better or worse. But Michigan doesn’t need to wait to see what happens at the federal level to make changes to police state laws.