Michigan State Police

A Michigan State Police cruiser. 

(The Center Square) – The 2019 civil asset forfeiture report released by Michigan State Police shows that more than $12 million in cash and other assets were forfeited to local governments and police agencies last year by people accused, but not necessarily convicted of, a crime.

A 2019 measure signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that went into effect Aug. 7, 2019, required a criminal conviction before some property seized under the Public Health Code can be forfeited.

It’s not clear what effect the reform had because it was enacted midway through the report’s time frame.

Compared to the 2018 report, 1,042 fewer property records were submitted, $4.6 million less was seized, and $3 million less seized items funded law enforcement. 

Government agencies didn’t answer what happened to 95 items valued at $228,80.

  • 513 weren’t charged with a violation, but forfeitures were authorized.
  • 2,074 were charged with a violation and have pending charges
  • 2,357 were charged with and convicted of the forfeiture’s violation
  • 261 people were charged but not convicted of the forfeiture authorization charges.
  • 299 were charged but their conviction status wasn’t answered, and for 279 people, neither the charge nor conviction status was answered

Some law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is a critical tool to stop criminals from continuing illicit activity funded through other illegal means.

But American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Policy Counsel Kimberly Buddin told The Center Square that the practice hurts people with low incomes the most, who don’t have the resources to fight the government.

“The average value of property seized is relatively low that’s seized, so for many people, it’s not worth the effort to fight to get property back,” Buddin said.

Items seized in 2019:

  • $8.9 million in cash
  • 1,975 vehicles
  • 557 weapons

Buddin said having a car seized in a heavy vehicle-reliant state like Michigan can be devastating.

“So if you don’t have a vehicle, it’s much less likely you’ll be able to get to your job or take your kids to school, when that was a thing, or go to doctor’s appointments,” Buddin said.

Buddin said that without a vehicle, people whose property was seized can’t get to their job to earn income to fight forfeiture proceedings or pay fines and fees to regain their property.

“It’s a slippery slope that really exacerbates issues of poverty and it’s just one of those issues that’s extremely unfair that doesn’t make sense,” Buddin said.

Most of the cash and property of the forfeitures directly fund law enforcement.

Buddin said law enforcement agencies are reliant on forfeiture assets to fund overtime or equipment.

“At the end of the day, funding any type of government agency off of the backs of people at the expense of due process is fundamentally wrong,” Buddin said.

The ACLU and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP) worked together on the 2019 reform, but MCPP Director of Marketing and Communications Jarrett Skorup said his group wants to end civil asset forfeiture altogether.

Skorup said one still unresolved civil asset forfeiture issue is when a person is convicted of an offense, but police try to take ownership of that persons’ assets they didn’t necessarily gain through illegal activity.

“Just because you get a low drug conviction, that doesn't mean that you necessarily gained your car through assets of drugs,” Skorup said.

That convicted person might not have the money to defend themselves in civil court, Skorup said, so they may walk away from the property, compared to in criminal forfeiture where a person would have a public-appointed attorney to defend them at no additional cost.

It won't be clear until the 2020 report what impact the reform had on the practice.

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.