Our Editorial: Get cops out of fencing racket
A bill moving through the state Legislature would get police out of the petty theft racket, but would leave the door open for them to continue engaging in grand larceny. Still, it’s an important step, and the measure should be adopted.
Civil asset forfeiture is an affront to constitutionally protected property rights and the fundamental legal concept of innocent until proven guilty. And yet it is practiced by nearly all of Michigan’s law enforcement agencies and protected by state law.
The House bill pushed by Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, would drastically restrict this legalized theft.
The bill, HB 4158, would require a conviction before most private property could be seized from individuals and transferred to the government.
That may seem like a common sense condition, and certainly a fair one, but that is not the current practice in Michigan.
Here, police are able to grab property on the mere suspicion that it was gained from or helped facilitate criminal activity. In fact, 10 percent of those who have their assets seized are never criminally charged.
Getting the property back is a cumbersome and expensive process, and many of those whose possessions were taken find the effort to recover them not worth the time and money.
Property that is seized is most often sold and the proceeds used to fund police operations. That provides a perverse incentive for cops to find a connection between the assets and a suspected crime.
In a number of cases, cash and other items have been taken from houses and automobiles even when no trace of drugs or other illegal contraband is found inside.
In 2016, $15.3 million in private property was seized under the civil asset forfeiture law. Some years, the value has reached $25 million.
Three years ago the Legislature reformed the law to raise the standard of evidence required before property can be taken, and also demanded better accounting from police agencies about why assets were confiscated.
That has cut into the total amount taken, but the practice of grabbing private property without a conviction has continued. It would end under the House bill, at least for smaller seizures.
The proposed bill would still permit seizures of assets valued above $50,000, on the theory that such big-ticket items are a likely indication of drug activity. That reasoning is obviously flawed. There are a lot of non-criminal reasons someone may possess that much cash or other property.
Police should not be operating on assumptions. No property should be taken and held without enough evidence for a criminal conviction.
Law enforcement agencies are lobbying the Legislature hard to scrap the bill, arguing forfeiture is an important tool in combating the drug trade. In reality, it has become a vital piece of their operating budgets.
If police need more money, raise taxes, but don’t steal the property of citizens.
Lawmakers should get police out of this sordid business by ending civil asset forfeiture in cases where no one has been convicted of a crime.