Local Ballot Initiatives Target Police, Prosecutors Confiscating Property

Local measures would require conviction for asset forfeiture

Despite new Michigan laws that begin to limit the ability of law enforcement agencies to take property from a person who has not been convicted of a crime, civil liberties activists say that the practice, known as "civil asset forfeiture," is still a problem. Their plan of action? Work at the local level to ban it.

“We need to put police back in the role of being protectors of society rather than glorified armed robbers, which is what they’ve become under civil asset forfeiture,” said Shane Trejo, who is organizing petition drives in Oakland County.

Trejo became involved through his work with the Oakland County Republican Party and the Tenth Amendment Center, for which he leads the state chapter. After seeing an Oakland Press article illustrating the potential abuses by documenting one harrowing case, he contacted Scott Tillman of the Liberty Initiative Fund about going beyond the compromise reform bills passed in 2015.

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One new state law imposes stricter reporting requirements on police agencies that participate in civil asset forfeiture, and another requires prosecutors to show “clear and convincing” evidence before seized property can be forfeited (transferred to the state). Before that law took effect, a less stringent standard of "preponderance of evidence" applied.

“Those measures were a step in the right direction but are not stopping the raids,” said Trejo.

When Michigan's new laws were being debated, groups including the ACLU, the Institute for Justice and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy advocated an even higher standard that would require a person to be convicted before police could keep and sell seized property. Other states have enacted this standard and New Mexico went even further, eliminating civil forfeiture altogether. Law enforcement can only keep assets after going through the criminal system.

Trejo is concerned that some Michigan law enforcement agencies are doubling down on civil asset forfeiture now, in the event that additional state restrictions further limit their ability to keep property seized.

Tillman believes that pursuing a statewide ballot measure to reform asset forfeiture would cost at least $1 million. So a better route, he thinks, may be to seek reforms at the local level. Michigan's law gives "home rule" power to local governments, subject to exceptions specified in state law. As an example of local reforms, Tillman noted city charter initiatives to decriminalize marijuana.

“If we put civil asset forfeiture on the ballot in enough different cities, we can bring statewide attention to it and show legislators it is a winning issue and people will support legislators who change this,” said Tillman.

The local proposals would prohibit police from keeping property seized from a person who is not convicted of a criminal act. Also, if a local police department were entitled to the proceeds of any joint-agency forfeitures that don’t meet this standard, including ones involving federal and state agencies, the money would go into a road repair fund rather than its budget.

Tillman and Trejo say such ordinances won’t stop county, state or federal agencies from executing forfeitures that don’t meet the proposed standard, but they will make such seizures harder from a practical and political standpoint.

Agencies that want a piece of asset forfeiture sale proceeds “will have to own what they are doing,” said Tillman.

Petitions for local bans are circulating in five communities: Keego Harbor, Lathrup Village, Northville, Bloomfield Hills and Clarkston. Walled Lake and Auburn Hills may join the list. Before any initiative is placed on the November ballot, its backers must collect signatures from 5 percent of registered voters by early August.

The Prosecutors Attorneys Association of Michigan, which represents 83 county prosecutor offices, declined to comment on the ballot initiatives.


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