In Traverse City, a couple could lose thousands of dollars in cash as well as their home because of the state’s loose civil forfeiture laws. Their case shows the perspective of both sides of this issue, but the solution is fairly simple – governments should not be able to take ownership of people’s assets unless they are convicted of a crime.
The Traverse City Record-Eagle does a great job laying out the situation. The Traverse Narcotics Team believes Kenneth and Mary Murray profited from what it calls “ill-gotten gains.” The law enforcement agency accuses the couple of violating the state’s medical marijuana law by selling to people who did not have a physician-granted prescription. It also says the couple has made and sold edible medical marijuana, which is illegal.
While no charges are currently filed against the couple, Kenneth has been charged with drug crimes in the past. He pleaded guilty to two counts of delivering or manufacturing an imitation controlled substance in 2015.
The Traverse Narcotics Team and county prosecutor are accusing the Murrays of using the sale of illegal substances to gain $3,863 in cash as well as a $262,657 home. So, as is legal under current Michigan law, they’ve seized the cash and home and are attempting to forfeit (transfer) the assets to the state. As the Record Eagle reports:
Detective Sgt. Randy Graham argued the couple's home and money are "ill-gotten gains," earned through medical marijuana sales that violated Michigan's medical marijuana law.
"(Criminal forfeiture is used) so that the criminals involved in the drug trade don't benefit from their crimes financially," Graham said.
The Murray’s attorney argues in a court filing that “there is no evidence that any of the proceeds that were in the bank are the product of any illegal activity.”
While there are many examples of major abuse of civil forfeiture laws (see here for a good list in Michigan), this situation is more typical. Law enforcement suspects someone has gained assets through illegal activity, seizes it, and then places a high burden on the person to get it back. All this can be done before the person is convicted, or, in some cases, even charged with a crime.
But the ideal system would work in the opposite direction: Law enforcement should bring charges against a person for illegal activity, obtain a conviction in court, and prove the assets were gained through proceeds from the crime. Then, and only then, could the state take possession of the property.
Forfeiture is a necessary part of the criminal justice system. People who gain money, cars, homes and other property through illegal activity should not get to keep ill-gotten gains. But law enforcement should have to convict someone of a crime before taking possession of that person’s property. The Michigan Legislature should end civil forfeiture and only allow the state to take ownership of property after going convicting someone in the criminal justice system, just as the states of New Mexico and Nebraska have recently done.
To see specifics on how Michigan can improve its forfeiture system and read our study on this issue, please visit www.mackinac.org/forfeiture.
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