Police Seize Property All The Time And It’s No Big Deal — Until They Want To Keep It

Keeping it is called ‘forfeiture,’ and a proposal to raise the bar is being considered

When the police have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed — “probable cause” — they are permitted to seize a person’s property as evidence, or as part of an investigation. If the police pull over a car and smell marijuana, or if they see someone with a suitcase full of cash running away from a bank robbery, they can take possession of the car or the cash-stuffed suitcase. The legal term for this is “seizure,” and it happens all the time.

If those suspicions turn out to be correct, prosecutors can then petition a court to take actual ownership of the seized property through a process called forfeiture, and the property is said to be forfeited. While seizure is very common, since the police collect property as evidence related to an alleged crime, forfeiture is not common.

Forfeiture is a legal procedure involving prosecutors and courts. In Michigan and most states, it happens in civil court, or is done administratively if the owner of seized property does not file a claim to get it back.

Forfeiture can happen even if a person is never convicted or even charged with a crime. In 2016, one out of every 10 individuals in Michigan whose seized property was later forfeited to the authorities was never charged with a crime.

The Michigan Legislature is considering a bill to greatly reduce the possibility of this happening by requiring a conviction in most circumstances before civil asset forfeiture can occur. The requirement would have no effect on the work of the police when it comes to making seizures, but would set a higher bar for prosecutors who go for forfeiture.

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