Lee McGrath
Pictured: Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice

In May, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy hosted a forum at the Capitol to discuss the state's civil asset forfeiture law and some of its glaring problems.

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice; Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan; and Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) comprised the panel. Despite hailing from dramatically different political backgrounds, all three participants agreed on the problem facing Michigan citizens and the preferred method to solve it.

While the criminal justice system grants individuals the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, they face a different standard when their property is placed in the civil justice system. The law forces a person who wishes to redeem his or her belongings to prove a negative — that the car, cash, or other seized object taken by authorities was not used to commit a crime, nor was it the proceeds of a crime.

The outcome of the criminal case — assuming charges are even filed — has no impact on the disposition of the individual's property. All three panelists cited instances of abuse, including citizens losing cars or large amounts of money without ever being charged with a crime.

In some cases an owner must pay a fee (called a bond) even to get a hearing before a judge. While the indigent have the right to a public defender in criminal proceedings, they have no such right in asset forfeiture cases, which Korobkin argues unfairly "punishes [defendants] for being poor."

McGrath pointed out that one reason prosecutors and law enforcement continue to unjustly seize property under this law is the strong incentive it provides them: The proceeds from any seized property supplement local police budgets.

Another factor in departments' willingness to abuse the law is the lax reporting requirements and weak enforcement. Korobkin decried the current system as having "no legitimate control and oversight."

To correct these abuses, Irwin and his colleagues in the Michigan House have passed a bipartisan package of reform bills. The bills await consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Watch a replay of the Mackinac Center's forum on civil asset forfeiture at Mackinac.org/Events.