News Story

No Arrest — But Cops Took And Kept His $2,035 Anyway

Your assets are presumed guilty in Michigan; legislation would change that

In May 2016, two Michigan State Police troopers conducted a traffic stop in Flint when they suspected a man had made a drug-related transaction at a nearby McDonalds. After searching his SUV and finding no illegal drugs or drug-related materials, the police seized $2,035 from him but did not charge him with any crime.

The suspicion was based on the man parking his Chevy Trailblazer next to a silver Chevy Malibu in the McDonald’s lot. Officers had stopped the man at least twice in the previous two months, and one of those times found he had $5,000 in his possession. Also, his vehicle did not comply with state law on windows.

After hearing his Miranda rights, the man agreed to an interview and let the officers search his person and his vehicle. According to the official report, the trooper involved says he suspected the man of engaging in drug-dealing activity.

The man had been stopped by the Michigan State Police the previous night, when he gave an inconsistent account of his destination in Flint. Additionally, state police were suspicious of his cache of money, $2,035, which largely consisted of $20 bills. Heroin is typically sold in $20 amounts, an officer stated.

State police records indicate that officers seized the man’s $2,035; he was released at the scene and no criminal charges were filed.

In Michigan, one out of every 10 citizens whose property is seized and then kept by police through a legal process called civil asset forfeiture is never charged with a crime. More than $15.3 million in cash and property was forfeited last year according to a state report.

The man mentioned above was one of 523 people in Michigan last year who had seized property forfeited without being charged with a crime. In this particular case, state police records indicate that Michigan State Police Financial Services was able to keep $1,729.75 of the money forfeited.

According to Kahryn Riley, policy analyst in the criminal justice initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the troopers’ actions weren’t illegal because Michigan doesn’t currently have a law requiring a conviction or even an arrest before pursuing a forfeiture action in court.

Riley, though, said this process violates the spirit of the maxim “innocent until proven guilty.”

“We want to give police with reasonable suspicion and probable cause the authority to follow up in those instances. But carrying a large amount of cash doesn’t amount to either one of those,” Riley said. “The police can seize it if they’re suspicious. But to forfeit it? There’s no reason why you shouldn’t need to get a conviction before transferring ownership of thousands of dollars.”

Riley added that currently, Michigan law enforcement agencies have a strong incentive to pursue forfeiture because they get to keep 100 percent of the proceeds. Legislation pending in the state House would reform this practice.

The Michigan State Police did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting comment on the incident.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.