Michigan Congressman John Conyers notes that forfeiture law "mostly ensnares the modest homes, cars, and hard-earned cash of ordinary, law-abiding people."
America’s Founding Fathers recognized the essential link between
property rights and individual liberty when they drafted the Constitution of the United
States and incorporated numerous measures intended to enshrine the protection of those
rights. Michigan’s constitution likewise provides for a considerable degree of
property rights protection. However, court interpretations and various laws and
regulations have undermined these all-important rights. The following recommendations will
help make Michigan a leader in the reform of laws that infringe upon citizens’ rights
to own and use their property.
1. Tighten rules on compensation for governmental "takings" of private
While both the U. S. and Michigan constitutions provide for "just
compensation" whenever government takes a citizen’s private property for public
use, court interpretations of various laws and regulations have undermined that principle.
Property owners are usually awarded compensation in the courts only if all
economically viable uses of their property are destroyed by government action. Even if a
regulation decreases the value of a person’s property by half, for instance, so long
as one use or some value of the total property remains, the owner is left without a
Some in Congress want to establish a "trigger point," requiring compensation
by the federal government when its regulations deprive a citizen of more than 33 percent
of his property’s value. At least two states—Florida and South
Carolina—have passed legislation with no trigger point: The governments in these
states must compensate citizens for any non-negligible reduction in a
property’s value resulting from their actions.
Currently, Michigan law only provides compensation for property owners when an action
of state or local government deprives an owner of all uses or value of his property. This
open door for governmental abuse of citizens’ property rights must be closed by
provisions that would require fair value compensation by government any time a
person’s property value is diminished by regulatory takings. In a study entitled Reforming
the Law of Takings in Michigan2, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has proposed
specific wording whereby this objective may be accomplished through executive order,
legislative statute, or constitutional amendment.
2. Reform civil asset forfeiture laws.
In a recent year in Michigan, law enforcement agents used so-called asset forfeiture
laws in 9,770 instances to seize more than $14 million in private property. In many cases,
no charges were ever filed against the owners and no finding of guilt was ever made in a
court of law. In civil asset forfeiture cases, law enforcement officials may do little
more than meet a very low threshold of evidence to show that the property in question was
involved in a crime. The owner himself need not be guilty of any crime for government to
gain the power to seize and keep his property. Michigan Congressman John Conyers notes
that forfeiture law is intended to give police the power to confiscate the property of
major lawbreakers, but in actual fact it "mostly ensnares the modest homes, cars, and
hard-earned cash of ordinary, law-abiding people."
The protection of property rights is a fundamental condition for the maintenance of a
free society and one of the most important obligations of government. The practice of
asset forfeiture is a manifest violation of property rights. Lawmakers must work to reform
both state and federal forfeiture laws with three objectives in mind:
Other important recommendations for reform of asset forfeiture laws are contained in
the Mackinac Center for Public Policy study, Reforming Property Forfeiture Laws to
Protect Citizens’ Rights.3