There has been abundant interest in the topic of civil forfeiture in Michigan recently. The Mackinac Center first published a study on this issue in the late 1990s, but we have highlighted the problems with this policy more in recent years.
Last year, Michigan Capitol Confidential broke several stories about state residents who had their property seized for over a year before being charged with a crime. The news service also highlighted stories about people losing their property without law enforcement ever pursuing charges. This year, we talked to legislators, hosted events, debated, teamed up with allies, pointed out polling and published a new study.
The Michigan Legislature listened and overwhelmingly passed some reforms to the current civil forfeiture system in Michigan, requiring transparency and raising the standard of evidence the state must meet before taking possession of property suspected to be connected to illegal activity. These steps were modest, but in a state that had among the worst-rated forfeiture laws in the nation, they are a significant move in the right direction.
So what next? Another important issue is bonding requirements.
When the police seize someone’s property or cash, it is held by the government. Depending on the crime that property is alleged to be involved with, a person has 20 or 28 days to file a claim to get it back. If they don’t do so, the assets are automatically forfeited to the government. But even if they do challenge it, they have to pay 10 percent of the value of the property (at least $250 and no more than $5,000) to the local unit of government.
In Michigan, there are numerous examples of innocent people, never charged with a crime, who had to pay significant sums of money to get their property back. In some of these cases, the police did not even have a solid suspicion that the property was involved in illegal activity, but still these people were forced to pay a fee to get it back. Why should you have to pay a ransom to get your own property back when you haven’t even been charged with a crime?
One bill that would be very beneficial is House Bill 4629 sponsored by Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township. The bill would repeal this bonding requirement.
Bonding itself is not necessarily a bad policy; it is a long-standing practice in the criminal justice system. A way to completely avoid the problems associated with this policy when it comes to civil forfeiture would be for the state to eliminate civil forfeiture altogether and allow the government to confiscate property only through criminal courts, where it must try individuals.
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