Editorial: Put the kibosh on police theft

The Detroit News
Lawmakers have passed reforms to civil asset forfeiture. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should support them.

The Michigan Legislature recently passed a package of bills requiring a criminal conviction before law enforcement agencies can permanently seize private property. Now those bills head to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk. She should sign them, and join the dozen other states that have made the protection of private property — and civil liberties — a priority.

The bill packages passed both the Michigan House and Senate with near-unanimous bipartisan support. And though law enforcement are urging the governor to veto the bills because they say civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool to discourage drug dealing, most seizures amount to just a few hundred dollar in cash or an old vehicle.

Attorney General Dana Nessel has also supported the reforms, and the Democrat started the year standing by House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, in support of ending the current practice.

Police would still be able to use civil asset forfeiture in large drug busts because the bills permit the seizure of property that amounts to more than $50,000. 

But it's time to do away with the practice of civil asset forfeiture because it violates constitutionally protected property rights and the fundamental legal concept of innocent until proven guilty by penalizing those who have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Despite that, it is currently protected by state law and used by nearly all of Michigan’s law enforcement agencies.

And because retrieving property from law enforcement can be both expensive and time-consuming, many decide that recovering their possessions isn’t worth their time and money.

Seized property is often sold off and that income goes to fill law enforcement coffers. It offers a perverse incentive for police to link valuable property with a crime.

And it has been tremendously lucrative. In 2016, $15.3 million in private property was seized under the civil asset forfeiture law. Some years the value has reached $25 million.

Law enforcement shouldn’t be stealing citizen’s property to balance their budget.

Though the state’s law enforcement agencies may need additional funding to fill the gap made by outlawing this practice, that’s a small price to pay compared to the threat civil asset forfeiture poses to property rights.

Whitmer should affirm Michigan citizens' property rights by signing this package of bills into law.