In Michigan, people can lose ownership of their property through a process known as civil asset forfeiture. Police can take cash, cars or even a home, all without even having to file a criminal charge against the owner.
As former Michigan law enforcement officers who witnessed firsthand the abuse of forfeiture, we urge legislators to safeguard the rights of property owners and reform this practice.
One of us, Theodore Nelson, served the public for the past 40 years — 26 as a Michigan State Police officer and 14 as a criminal justice instructor. During his career with the MSP, he taught civil asset forfeiture procedure to all state police officers for over 10 years.
The other, Steven Miller, was a sergeant for the Canton Township Police Department and an officer for nearly 25 years. He was a patrol officer and supervisor for Wayne County’s “Operation Push-Off,” which seizes cars and cash and forfeits them for minor legal violations.
The original intention behind civil asset forfeiture was to seize key assets from high-level drug dealers or other serious criminals and funnel that money to police departments, which could then be used to fight more crime. But it has since been used far beyond that original intent. Today in Michigan, forfeiture is mostly used to seize cars and small amounts of cash — generally less than $1,000. And most problematically, according to the most recent state report, nearly 1,000 people — just last year — had their assets transferred to the state despite not being charged with criminal activity, or being found not guilty.
We witnessed people guilty of only minor violations, or innocent altogether, who had hundreds of dollars or their vehicles seized and forfeited. When that happens, it would often be more expensive to file a lawsuit — not to mention the time and effort involved — than to just let the police keep the property. Police know this, and they know that if the owner doesn’t fight the forfeiture, the profits go back to the police department. Some agencies seize money with a goal of just bolstering their budgets.
Law enforcement can only be effective with support and trust from the public it serves. Civil asset forfeiture undermines that trust. Reform needs to be instituted so that law enforcement can refocus on protecting and serving. This would reaffirm the public’s constitutional right as recognized by the 14th Amendment: “No state shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
We think forfeiture can be a valid tool for law enforcement. Criminals should not be able to keep the assets they gained through illegal activity. But judges and juries should decide whether a person is guilty before the government gains control of someone’s property.
Theodore Nelson is a retired officer from the Michigan State Police. Steven Miller is a retired sergeant from the Canton Township Police Department.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Detroit News. It is reprinted with permission from the authors.