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Michigan Enacts Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms

July 31, 2019
By Jake Grant

New statutes prohibit police officers from seizing property for suspected drug crimes without first obtaining a conviction or plea agreement.

Three new laws in Michigan will limit property seizure practices in the state.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process that allows law enforcement officers to take assets, such as money and automobiles, from individuals who are suspected of having been involved in illegal activity. Traditionally, law enforcement officials do not even have to charge the owner with a crime, and the owner must go to court to recover the property.

The new statutes prohibit police officers from seizing property for suspected drug crimes without first obtaining a conviction or plea agreement, in cases involving assets under $50,000. The measures also require the government to notify an individual if their property has been seized, and they place the burden on officials to prove the forfeiture is justified. If not, the property must be returned to the owner within 14 days.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the three bills on May 9.

Need for Lawyers Remains

The new laws direct the State Court Administrative Office to develop a form for property owners to file a written objection regarding property seized without a warrant, and another form to petition the government to relinquish the property.

It will still be difficult for owners to recover their property when it is unjustly taken, says Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice.

“The average forfeiture is less than $2,000,” McGrath said. “It is irrational for a property owner to spend $5,000 on a lawyer to get back property worth less than the lawyer’s cost.

“It is equally irrational for legislators to believe that most citizens can use a form to answer a civil complaint in 20 days without the help of a lawyer,” McGrath said.

‘A Strong First Step’

Michigan law enforcement agencies benefit from asset forfeiture because they are allowed to sell the assets they have seized and use the funds, says Matthew Glans, a senior policy analyst at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“Michigan took a strong first step toward limiting the abuse of civil asset forfeiture by limiting its use in drug cases, which do represent a large portion of property seizures,” Glans said.

“Unfortunately, the new laws do not end the practice completely and do not address the incentives for law enforcement agencies to wrongfully seize property,” said Glans.

Equitable Sharing Loophole

Seizures through asset forfeiture in Michigan were estimated to total more than $13 million in cash and property in 2017, Budget & Tax News reported in April.

Legislators should take further action to limit the incentives for police to take people’s property, says Glans.

“Michigan lawmakers should build on these positive reforms and enact further new laws requiring seized funds to be directed toward education, crime prevention, or the general fund, not used by law enforcement agencies,” Glans said.

Police also share in the proceeds when federal agencies are involved, Glans says.

“[The Michigan Legislature] should also close the equitable sharing loophole and block local police agencies from working with federal authorities to sidestep state restrictions on forfeiture and dividing the seized assets between them,” said Glans.

Jake Grant (jakeg42294@gmail.com) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Internet Info

Matthew Glans, “Michigan Considers Partial Reform of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” Research & Commentary, The Heartland Institute, March 7: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/research--commentary-michigan-considers-partial-reform-of-civil-asset-forfeiture