Editorial: SCOTUS ruling should end theft by police

The Detroit News

At last, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a firm stance against the constitutionally abhorrent practice called civil asset forfeiture, better known as legalized theft by police.

The Supreme Court says police generally need a search warrant if they want to track criminal suspects’ movements by collecting information about where they’ve used their cellphones.

In an unanimous ruling last week, the court greatly restricted the ability of law enforcement agencies to confiscate property suspected of being used to commit a crime.

It's a big step to rein in an abuse of property rights, the presumption of innocence and proportionate punishment. 

The case, Timbs v. Indiana, was brought by a man whose $42,000 Land Rover SUV was seized when he was arrested in 2015 for selling heroin to undercover cops. Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest and five years probation.

But the state kept his vehicle, purchased with the proceeds from a life insurance pay-out, and not drug sales. 

 Timbs argued the SUV seizure amounted to an additional fine on top of his sentence, and thus violated Eighth Amendment protections against excessive fines. 

The court agreed, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing that excessive fines can become sources of revenue disconnected from the criminal justice system.

The ruling has implications for Michigan, where police agencies in 2018 seized $13 million of property under civil asset forfeiture laws.

A  similar Eighth Amendment challenge was filed in federal court in Detroit to Wayne County's seizure practices. At the center of that case is the seizure of a 2015 Kia Soul from a man arrested for possession of $10 worth of marijuana.

Too many police departments in Michigan and elsewhere have become dependent on civil asset forfeiture money to fund their operations. That creates a perverse incentive for police to grab property simply to fill the gaps in their budgets.

Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, is pushing a bill through the state Legislature that would require a criminal conviction before private property can be seized and sold. Under current law, goods and cash can be confiscated on the mere suspicion of a crime, even if the owner is never convicted, or even charged. 

The legislation failed to pass in the last session, largely due to lobbying by law enforcement agencies who don't want to see this gravy train derailed.

The bill, though far superior to the status quo, has flaws that should be addressed, most notably that it applies only to property worth less than $50,000. Larger amounts could still be taken without a conviction. 

But with the Supreme Court ruling, Michigan should recognize that the constitutional tide is at last turning against civil asset forfeiture.

Lucido's bill, backed by Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, should be toughened and passed.