Without so much as charging someone with a crime, Michigan law enforcement agencies can use civil forfeiture to seize property and then fund themselves with the proceeds. A reform bill package signed in October 2015 by Gov. Rick Snyder is a step in the right direction, but Michigan civil forfeiture laws will still need serious improvement. Even after reform, its laws only scored a “D-“ in “Policing for Profit,” a new report from the Institute for Justice.
The new laws do strengthen property rights protections for Michiganders by raising the legal bar. Law enforcement must prove that the property is connected to a crime to forfeit it. They also improve forfeitures transparency. Starting in 2016, agencies will have to publicly report forfeitures that they haven’t reported in the past and note whether any person was charged and ultimately convicted for the violation asserted during the seizure.
Unfortunately, the reforms didn’t touch on the main driver of forfeiture abuse: a potent financial incentive to seize property. Every penny that Michigan sheriffs, state troopers and drug task forces forfeit goes right into their coffers to be spent on salaries, equipment and personal items. State and local law enforcement have collected more than 244 million dollars in forfeitures proceeds under State law. One investigation details numerous victims of questionable raids and seizures, including patients with medical marijuana cards, an American Red Cross worker, and 130 patrons of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit’s “Funk Night.”
Michigan law enforcement have received 127 million dollars in forfeiture proceeds by participating in a controversial federal program called “Equitable Sharing,” where State and local agencies can forfeit property under Federal law, even if doing so would circumvent stronger protections provided by State law.
Congress was expected to advance Federal reform in 2015 to abolish Equitable Sharing, but it has so far failed to do so. In the meantime, Michigan can and should strictly curtail participation in this abusive program and address the remaining flaws in State law.
Over 70% of the forfeitures are from people of color. This brutal attack against people of color continues. I am hopeful that this article, which outlines just one of the many ordeals of people of color, will serve the public to educate and reinforce the belief that all lives matter without regard to color of one’s skin.
The forfeiture laws have destroyed entire communities of people of color. We must stand together and fight back.