ACLU, Mackinac Center report asks state to end civil forfeiture

Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws, which enable law enforcement agencies to gain possession of private property, are among the worst-rated in the nation and should be changed, according to a new report jointly authored and published by Mackinac Center for Public Policy and American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“When the government can transfer property from citizens to the state without proving wrongdoing, there is clearly something wrong,” said report co-author Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst with the Mackinac Center. “The foundation of good government is private property rights and the rule of law — civil forfeiture violates both of these.”

Released this week, the report  “Civil Forfeiture in Michigan: A Review and Recommendations for Reforms” underscores that citizens are having their property and money taken from them through the practice of civil forfeiture, and recommends solutions.

Assets are seized from people who will never be convicted of a crime, and in many cases, never even charged with a crime. Under current law, Michiganders can forfeit their property if law enforcement agencies merely suspect it was used for illegal activities.

The report chronicles clear cases of civil forfeiture abuse, including an instance when dozens of people at a party at a Detroit art museum had vehicles impounded by police, all because the museum was suspected of not having a proper license to serve alcohol. Another case mentioned is that of a Red Cross worker whose vehicle was forfeited after a passenger in her car was accused of making inappropriate eye contact with passing motorists.

The report also mentions the plight of several individuals who’ve had their bank accounts frozen for supposedly making “suspicious” deposits. None of the individuals in these situations were convicted of a crime, but all suffered harm and property loss based only on a suspicion.

“The state should not be able to forfeit property unless it has convicted someone of a crime,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director with the ACLU of Michigan and co-author of the report. “This process is an end-run around the U.S. Constitution and legislators should reform the process.”

Report recommendations include:

—Eliminate civil forfeiture by the state and permit only criminal forfeiture. This would allow the government to take possession of property only in criminal proceedings after a person has been convicted of a crime.

—Increase transparency reporting requirements for property that is forfeited, since currently policymakers, citizens and the media have very little information on how much is being taken.

—Create new laws that reduce “policing for profit” by redirecting proceeds from forfeited property away from local police agencies and to general government funds.

The full report can be downloaded at www.mackinac.org/archives/2015/s2015-05.pdf.

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