Retired State Police Officer: Forfeiture is 'Big Money' for Law Enforcement Agencies

A video report about the problems with civil forfeiture

The first time Ted Nelson realized something was wrong with civil asset forfeiture occurred when he was training police officers around the state on the practice.

“Many of the narcotics teams were seizing items such as furniture and televisions. I don’t think they were concerned with showing that they were obtained through illegal proceeds,” said Nelson, who was a Michigan State Police officer for 26 years until he retired in 2000. He stays actively engaged in law enforcement policy and speaks publicly for LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Nelson participated in a number of seizures himself and said the civil seizures were often used as leverage in criminal proceedings. Under civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement uses warrants obtained under civil law with a much lower burden of proof, preponderance of evidence, than is the case with criminal proceedings.

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“When a police officer takes you into custody, they are required to present a report to the prosecutor, people have to be arraigned in so many hours, and they have rights because the system says you’re innocent until proven guilty. With forfeitures, the property is guilty until proven innocent,” said Nelson.

He said many times prosecutors would not resolve a civil case until the criminal case was processed. That way, defendants would feel pressure to plead guilty to crimes so they could get their property back.

Nelson said most of seized property was forfeited because owners could not come up with the cash bond to get it back (10 percent of an item's value) and were unwilling to go to court. He said a lot of seizures were small amounts of cash taken during traffic or street stops. If the owner showed any evidence of drug use — marijuana was common — police could take the cash with little challenge.

In small offenses, usually involving traffic stops, police would often use a consent search.

“Consent search and forfeiture are good partners,” said Nelson.

“A lot of people don’t believe having money in and of itself is a crime and a lot of them don’t understand the forfeiture law and a lot of people are afraid to tell the police no. Police know how to ask. I taught how to ask and psychologically, you had the advantage,” he added.

Nelson said medical marijuana has presented a huge opportunity for police to bring in revenue through seizures.

“Marijuana is the big money. Marijuana has always been the big money for asset forfeiture,” said Nelson.

Nelson is speaking out on asset forfeiture because he thinks it is preventing law enforcement from concentrating on more violent crime and causing mistrust in the community.

“I think there are communities that are affected more by this than others and I think those communities are resistant to trusting police. They think police will arrest them or take things from them,” said Nelson.

Nelson supports the package of bills on civil asset forfeiture that passed the Michigan House and is being considered in the Michigan Senate.

Michigan State Police Spokeswomen Sierra Medrano and Shanon Banner didn’t return voice messages left seeking comment.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has a new report which shows the problems of civil forfeiture in Michigan and suggests solutions. You can read about it at www.mackinac.org/forfeiture.

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See also:

Most Americans Unaware Police Can Take Property Without Charges

National Conservative Groups Push to End Civil Asset Forfeiture

National Group Gives Michigan a 'D' for Forfeiture Laws

House Judiciary Passes Civil Forfeiture Reform Bills


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