Michigan Needs Better Forfeiture Laws

Bipartisan bills address issue

The Lansing City Pulse reported on a federal audit that shows the mismanagement of asset forfeiture funds by the Lansing Police Department.

Asset forfeiture is used by police to seize property from citizens. In Michigan, this can be done even if someone is not charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Government agencies have seized at least $250 million worth of money and property from state residents since 2000.

Most of the forfeiture is aimed to prevent drug crimes. Because many drug-related acts deal with state and national offenses, local law enforcement will often team up with federal officials. Money and property can then be split up between the agencies. Critics of asset forfeiture laws say the process leads to distorted incentives, as police budgets can be bolstered by these funds.

In Lansing, the Department of Justice report shows poor oversight and some misallocation of the funds. While this is relatively minor, the larger problem is having laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize property without a criminal conviction.

There are two bipartisan bills in the Michigan House that would help deal with these issues. House Bill 5212, introduced by Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would prevent asset forfeiture for certain drug offenses unless a person was convicted of a crime.

House Bill 5081, introduced by Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, would require substantially more transparency for asset forfeiture proceedings, including details showing if a person was convicted of a crime, the value of the assets and other information.

According to the Institute for Justice, which tracks forfeiture cases nationwide, Michigan’s current laws are among the worst in the nation at protecting people’s rights. Many are not guilty of committing any crime. These bills would put the state on a better path by protecting individual rights.