From 2001 to 2014, Michigan law enforcement agencies confiscated more than $258 million from people in the state who in many cases were never found guilty of a crime. Under the state’s civil forfeiture laws, police departments can take a suspect’s car, weapons, cash, or even house when they have reason to believe the property was used in connection with a crime or purchased with the funds from illicit activity. Fortunately, Michigan’s government is joining the rest of the nation in reforming this unjust practice.
What Can I Do if the Police Confiscate my Property?
If the police can demonstrate that your property has been used or purchased in connection with a crime, they can confiscate it. Specifically, the authorities will need to prove their case “with a preponderance of the evidence.” This is a different standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the amount of certainty a prosecutor must demonstrate in a criminal proceeding. What this means is that it is much easier for the authorities to confiscate your property than to lock you behind bars.
Once your property is confiscated, you must post a bond within 20 days or it will be automatically forfeited to the state. The bond amount can be anywhere between $250 and $5,000, which means that for many Michiganders, fighting back against civil forfeiture is simply beyond their financial means. To make matters worse, if you lose the case to get your property back, you’ll have to pay the government’s court costs. In any case, you’ll also need to pay a lawyer to represent your interests before the court.
Basically, asset forfeiture law unfairly favors the government over the citizens it is supposed to protect. Although Michigan has taken strides in reforming its laws, its asset forfeiture system remains one of the most unjust in the country.
How Michigan is Reforming Civil Forfeiture Laws
On October 20th of last year, Governor Snyder signed into law House Bills 4499 and 4500, and HBs 4503-4507, which significantly overhauled Michigan’s asset forfeiture laws. The bills required law enforcement to file annual reports detailing the property they confiscate, and raised the burden of proof in civil forfeiture cases from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence.”
Raising the burden of proof narrowed the situations in which the police can confiscate a suspect’s property—but not by much. The burden of proof is a technical term for the amount of certainty with which the authorities must prove their case. With the reforms, the authorities need to show that it is “more likely than not” rather than “probable” that your property was used illegally or purchased with the funds of illegal activity.
This year, House of Representatives approved a bill that would outlaw the bonding requirement in forfeiture cases. But now, House Bill 4629 faces a more difficult vote in the Senate. Introduced by Representative Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township) and supported by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the ACLU of Michigan, the bill would do away with the $250 to $5,000 bond needed to challenge the government’s confiscation of property—but only in drug-related cases.
Michigan’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms Need to Go Further
The Michigan ACLU and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy support the total abolishment of civil asset forfeiture, because it gives the police a monetary incentive that makes it impossible for them to enforce the law with impartiality. In the first few months of 2016 alone, Michigan law enforcement filled their coffers with over $20 million confiscated from drug case suspects.
In place of the current system, Michigan should follow states such as New Mexico and Nebraska, which only allow assets to be confiscated after a criminal trial with a higher burden of proof on the government. In these states, the people’s property can only be confiscated when they’ve been convicted of a crime. This avoids the awkward situation in Michigan where people who have been cleared from any wrongdoing still cannot recover their confiscated property.
At Davis Law Group, we are passionate about protecting the rights of Michiganders facing the criminal justice system. If you’ve been charged with a crime or if your assets have been confiscated during a police investigation, we can help you fight back against the government. Call us today at (313) 818-3238 for your free and confidential consultation with a Detroit criminal defense attorney.