Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agencies to confiscate property they believe is linked to criminal activity. They use the proceeds from these confiscations to supplement their funds. This practice is highly controversial because the police do not need to wait until a person is convicted of a crime before confiscating his or her property. The police claim that asset forfeiture is a tool in fighting crime, but in too many cases the practice amounts to abuse of power.
One notorious example of civil asset forfeiture occurred in 2008, when the police raided the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit because they were hosting an illegal dance party. The police confiscated the vehicles of 44 guests, who had to either pay to get their cars back or hire lawyers to fight their cases in court.
Much Needed Civil Asset Forfeiture Has Been Signed Into Law
On October 20th, Governor Snyder signed into law a series of bills that change civil forfeiture in Michigan for the better. House Bills 4499 and 4500, and HBs 4503-4507 will require law enforcement to be more transparent about their practices, and raise the burden of proof required to confiscate property.
The burden of proof is a technical term describing how much evidence is needed to obtain a desired legal result. In the context of civil asset forfeiture, the burden of proof before the reforms was a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that the police only needed to show that it was probable that the suspect’s property was used for or purchased with the proceeds from a crime such as drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling, or racketeering.
With the reforms, the police must now show that the property is connected with such crimes with “clear and convincing evidence.” Since it is harder to meet this standard of proof, there will be fewer situations in which the police can take property from a crime scene.
The Reforms Aim to Make Civil Asset Forfeiture More Transparent
Michigan’s police agencies reported that they confiscated over $20 million through civil asset forfeiture in 2016. But these are only the confiscations that the agencies chose to report—eight percent of the police agencies in Michigan didn’t report on their civil forfeiture activities. Additionally, the amount of property could be much greater because the $20 million only included confiscations occurring in drug cases.
This year’s reforms aim to shed some light into what most civil rights groups agree is a shady practice. Now, law enforcement agencies will be required to file annual reports that detail civil asset forfeiture cases and proceeds.
Should Civil Asset Forfeiture Be Allowed?
If your property got confiscated and you want to get it back, you have to go to court and prove that the property was not being used for or purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity. But for many people, the cost of posting bond, hiring a lawyer, and paying court fees is too much to bear. This means that in some instances the government can effectively confiscate property from innocent people with impunity—and the recent reforms do little to change this.
The Michigan ACLU and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy recommend doing away with civil asset forfeiture entirely, and propose that funds obtained from criminals should go to separate government agencies to eliminate the police’s profit motive. They also suggest that the government should only be allowed to confiscate property from people who have been tried and convicted for a crime.
While law enforcement agencies claim that civil asset forfeiture is an important tool in taking resources away from dangerous criminals, the practice is completely at odds with the principle of suspects being innocent until proven guilty. At Davis Law Group, our mission is to protect the rights of Michiganders as they face the criminal justice system. If you’re facing legal issues and want to talk to a Michigan criminal defense lawyer, you can call us today at (313) 818-3238 for a free and confidential consultation.