In 2008, Jacque Sutton was a 21-year-old college student from Mt. Clemens, Michigan who attended a monthly “Funk Night” party at an art gallery in Detroit. It was alleged that the gallery did not possess a proper license to hold such an event. Police raided the facility, seizing and impounding 44 vehicles parked outside on the street.
One of these cars was Sutton's, and though he was never convicted of a crime (tickets for “loitering” by him and others were waived), he still had to pay nearly $1,000 to get his 1989 Ford Mustang GT back from law enforcement.
How could something like this happen? Because of Michigan’s loose civil forfeiture laws.
“It’s like legalized stealing,” Sutton said. “According to the law, I did nothing wrong — but they’re allowed to take my property anyway. It doesn’t make sense.”[*]
The Constitution of the United States says that a state may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” But all over the country law enforcement agencies are using the practice of civil forfeiture to seize money and property from people who will never be convicted of a crime, and in many cases, never even charged with a crime. This is a particularly big problem in Michigan, where forfeiture laws have been rated as among the worst in the nation.
Civil forfeiture enables the government to take ownership of private property by claiming that the property was involved in illegal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture proceedings, however, civil forfeiture does not require the owner of the property to be convicted of a crime in order for assets to be transferred to the government. Civil forfeiture also employs a lower standard of proof for prosecutors to establish guilt, making it easier for the government to demonstrate that the property was “guilty” and eligible to be forfeited to the state.
Further, local police agencies in Michigan directly benefit from civil forfeiture, as they typically retain the proceeds from forfeited property.[†] This arrangement creates an incentive for law enforcement to seize property, because they can use the revenue to pad their budgets — a scheme dubbed “policing for profit.” Some police departments may even become dependent on this revenue.
There are several options policymakers should consider to improve Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws and protect the rights of individuals:
- Eliminate civil forfeiture and only allow criminal forfeiture. This would mean that the government could seize and take possession of property only in criminal proceedings and would require a criminal conviction of an individual before property can be forfeited;
- Increase transparency reporting requirements for property that is forfeited under current forfeiture laws;
- Reduce “policing for profit” by redirecting proceeds from forfeited property away from local police agencies.
Appendix A contains model legislation developed by the Institute for Justice that would achieve these reforms.
[*] Source: “CAID Raid Resources” (American Civil Liberties Union), http://perma.cc/4SHB-8XRQ; George Hunter and Doug Guthrie, “Police Property Seizures Ensnare Even the Innocent,” The Detroit News, Nov. 12, 2009, http://perma.cc/G7US-XAW9; Jarrett Skorup, “Bill Would Limit Asset Forfeiture in Michigan Without Criminal Conviction,” Michigan Capitol Confidential (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Dec. 20, 2013), http://perma.cc/5RGE-PUWF.
[†] MCL § 333.7524(1). For some forfeitures, after restitution is paid, 75 percent of the funds may be used by law enforcement while 25 percent is required to implement policies aimed at protecting the rights of crime victims. See MCL § 600.4708(1)f.