Civil Forfeiture Law: “Policing for Profit”

Michigan Civil Forfeiture Law Gets a “D”

About a month ago we discussed the bill package that had just been introduced into the Michigan House aimed at reforming our state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. So where are we at with this highly volatile subject? And why is the change so important?

“Policing for Profit” a study commissioned by the Institute for Justice, chronicles how both state and federal laws around the country leave citizens vulnerable to police abuse. In addition, the study grades states according to their laws, oversight and accountability. While only three states received a B or higher, Michigan received a D.

The reason for our poor grade was two-fold. First, the report says that Michigan’s prosecuting attorneys are required to prove “by a preponderance of the evidence” that property is related to a crime and thus subject to forfeiture. This standard is apparently considerably lower than the standard of evidence required to actually convict someone of a crime, which is “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

On the upside, the report also mentioned that property owners in Michigan are presumed innocent, and the government bears the burden of establishing that criminal activity took place with an owner’s knowledge or consent. Apparently this is not the case in most states.

But that little ray of light does not offset the fact that our state’s civil forfeiture laws are in need of serious reform. Which is effectively pointed out in the second reason for our bad grade – forfeiture incentives. In Michigan, law enforcement receives 100% of the proceeds of confiscated property, providing an incentive to “pursue forfeiture more vigorously than combating criminal activity.”

But why is this so important? What difference would it make, really, if the forfeiture laws were changed? Well, the difference would be obvious to the innocent citizens who were wrongfully subject to civil asset forfeiture. But on a grander scale, legal reform would affect the relationship between law enforcement and the civilians they are tasked with serving.

Testimony was heard recently by the Michigan House judiciary committee on five bills that would revamp the state’s forfeiture laws. One of the issues addressed was the level of evidence required. New laws would require a greater level of evidence that a crime has been committed before any asset seizure can legally take place.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, provided testimony and claimed that the proposed laws represented “a solid first step toward the ultimate goal of ending civil forfeiture. Most of these items deal with reporting,” he explained, “which is a critical first step, because you need more details about how seizures are happening.”

But “Policing for Profit” says it best, “It’s time to end civil forfeiture.  People shouldn’t lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement shouldn’t be able to profit from other people’s property.”

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