News Story

Nearly 1,000 People Not Charged or Found Not Guilty Lost Their Property Through Forfeiture

Even if you aren’t convicted of a crime, you may lose your home

Michigan law enforcement agencies took ownership of $11.8 million in cash and $1.3 million in property seized from individuals in 2017, through a legal process called civil asset forfeiture. The figures were obtained from an annual forfeiture report and responses to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The typical forfeiture involved assets – typically cars and cash – worth less than $500.

The forfeited property included eight homes, 711 weapons and 7,999 vehicles, according to the information obtained from Michigan law enforcement.

Forfeiture is the process of transferring assets to the government. The assets are first seized by police because they think the items may be connected to illegal activity. An important distinction in the process is that seizure is done by police while forfeiture is processed by prosecutors. In Michigan, no conviction, prosecution or even a formal arrest is required for officials to pursue forfeiture.

Out of the 6,666 forfeiture actions in 2017, 736 were never charged with a violation and 220 were charged but not convicted. There were 2,876 people who were charged and convicted, meaning that 57 percent of the people were not convicted before losing their assets.

“Before locking someone up permanently, our laws and Constitution require they be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Jarrett Skorup, who co-authored a 2015 report on civil forfeiture with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “In the same way, nobody should permanently lose their assets unless they are first convicted in criminal court and it is determined that the assets were gained through illegal activity.”

Nearly 75 percent of the forfeiture petitions that prosecutors filed in 2017 to retain seized property never went to trial because the property owner did not contest the claim. Eighty percent of assets taken were valued at $1,000 or less.

“This comprehensive report from law enforcement agencies across Michigan shows why Michigan needs to require a criminal conviction prior to taking ownership of anyone's property,” Skorup said. “While most police and prosecutor offices are acting properly, because of poor state laws, nearly 1,000 people lost their assets despite never being charged with criminal activity or being found not guilty in court.”

Skorup said that the law encourages police officers to seize assets and pursue forfeiture whenever possible because doing so gives their agencies money they can use to pay for equipment, personnel and supplies.

Dave Hiller, executive director of the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, takes a different stand on civil forfeiture. He said that it is a vital tool for law enforcement.

“It must be done properly, first of all, to assure due process is followed and additionally to eliminate any questions of impropriety,” Hiller said. “A law enforcement agency should work with the local prosecutor to ensure things are done the way the law is intended.”

Hiller said that in certain cases, civil forfeiture has a greater impact on criminals than criminal charges do. The Michigan FOP is, he said, open to improving the law to address due process concerns.

Michigan requires that police demonstrate “clear and convincing” evidence that an asset is linked to a crime for a police officer to be justified in taking it. But criminal convictions require a higher standard of proof, which is that prosecutors must prove someone committed a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that an individual may lose the assets that police seize even if there is not enough evidence for a criminal conviction.

The Michigan House has passed a bill that would require a criminal conviction for most cases of civil asset forfeiture. But House Bill 4158 has not been taken up in the state Senate.

Editor's note: The statistics on the number of forfeitures in Michigan were clarified.