News Story

Michigan Forfeiture Laws Improving, But State Transparency Still Falls Behind

Under civil asset forfeiture, cops can keep a person's stuff even without a conviction or arrest

Though Michigan has made reforms to its practice of civil asset forfeiture in recent years, a public interest law firm says that the state should make further changes.

The Institute for Justice has issued a report giving states a letter grade for their transparency and accountability surrounding a practice called civil asset forfeiture. The organization gave Michigan an F for failing to adequately disclose how the proceeds of forfeited property are spent but an A for making forfeiture records accessible.

Civil asset forfeiture is the process by which law enforcement agencies take ownership of property that was seized from individuals in connection with a suspected crime. Under current law, people can lose their property without being convicted of a crime or even being arrested.

While this process has been going on for decades, with restrictions on it typically getting looser, Michigan began tightening its forfeiture laws in the past few years. In 2015, the state passed laws that raised the standard of evidence law enforcement must use to forfeit property and required local governments to track the process. And at the start of 2017, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law that bans the practice of requiring property owners to post a cash bond before they can even challenge a forfeiture action in court.

“The IJ report gives Michigan average or higher grades in all but two portions of our civil asset forfeiture scheme, which reflects the work the state has done to mitigate some of the problems plaguing our system," said Kahryn Riley, criminal justice policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan received an overall C+ for the procedures used by law enforcement agencies here to track the status of seized property as the forfeiture process unfolds. This was a more favorable grade than earned by any other state except for Vermont and Oregon. Michigan would have scored higher if it required agencies to record more details of when and where property was seized, and its value.

The Institute for Justice grades both states and the federal government on the level of forfeiture reporting. Its report concludes that across the country, forfeiture programs lack transparency and accountability.

Many law enforcement agencies rely on civil asset forfeiture to generate revenue by selling forfeited property. Michigan law does not require law enforcement to account for how forfeiture revenues are spent, so the study gave the state an F in this category. Only nine states received an A.

Michigan received a B for requiring statewide forfeiture reports, but a D for enforcing penalties on law enforcement agencies that fail to file a report.

Public Act 152 of 2015, part of an earlier round of Michigan forfeiture reforms signed into law by Snyder, requires law enforcement agencies to file reports with the state each year to keep track of forfeiture proceedings. Another measure adopted then requires local agency forfeiture reports to include details of concluded, pending, or negotiated proceedings and requires the Michigan State Police to assemble these reports and make the findings accessible online.

Michigan and seven other states earned an A for requiring forfeiture records to be accessible online.

Michigan also has relatively stringent auditing standards, according to the report. But it gave the state a B on that topic because it only requires internal audits rather than independent audits.

Riley and the Mackinac Center believe Michigan should stop taking ownership of property through the civil court system and instead only forfeit assets through criminal court.

“We've had some good reforms that protect people from abuses of the practice, but the legislature should end civil forfeiture altogether,” Riley added. “That would be the best way to protect Michiganders' constitutional property rights.”