Mackinac Center Study: Government Property Seizures Threaten Rights of All

Congressman Conyers Hails Study as "Great Public Service"

MIDLAND—A new Mackinac Center for Public Policy study calling for stronger protection of citizens against government seizures of their property has drawn praise from the U. S. House Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Michigan Congressman John Conyers.

The study by the Midland-based research group cites abuses of laws that allow the state and federal governments to seize private property without proving the property or its owners were involved in a crime. In 1992, more than $14 million in cash and property was taken from citizens by Michigan law enforcement agencies in 9,770 separate seizures. Federal seizures grew 1,500 percent between 1985 and 1991.

Property seized even from innocent citizens is often never returned to them. Frequently, the law allows such property to be sold in public "government auctions," the proceeds of which can go to the law enforcement agencies that seized it.

The creation and use of these so-called forfeiture laws is growing, largely in an attempt to strike back at drug dealers by taking their profits from the illegal trade. But statistics indicating that 80 percent of the people whose property is seized under federal drug laws are never formally charged raise questions about forfeiture laws' effectiveness.

Conyers, critical of forfeiture laws, has characterized them as "designed to give cops the right to confiscate and keep the luxury possessions of major drug dealers [but which] mostly ensnares the modest homes, cars, and hard-earned cash of ordinary, law-abiding people."

The 39-page study warns that current forfeiture laws which violate the American tradition of "innocent until proven guilty" threaten the due-process rights of all citizens.

The study recommends nine reforms including disallowing seizures of property until government can prove its owners are guilty of a crime, requiring police and other agents to publicly justify forfeiture proceedings, and prohibiting law enforcement agencies to profit from the sale of assets they seize.

Conyers praised the study, saying, "The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has done a great public service by pointing out an abuse of power and a defect in our law. Forfeiture threatens the rights of all of our citizens and I'm going to do everything in my power to see that the study's recommendations get all the consideration they deserve."

Mackinac Center President Lawrence Reed said, "We appreciate Congressman Conyers's leadership to protect citizens' rights and we're pleased to be working with him on a common objective—reform of both Michigan and national forfeiture laws."

The study, Reforming Property Forfeiture Laws to Protect Citizens' Rights, was written by Mackinac Center Adjunct Scholar Donald J. Kochan, J. D. It is available free of charge at www.mackinac.org, or for $5 in printed form by calling (989) 631-0900.