News Story

Report: Michigan Police Kept $15 Million Taken Mostly From ‘Little Guys’ In 2018

‘Police do use it to raise revenue’

Over 6,000 persons had more than $15 million worth of property and cash seized and kept by Michigan law enforcement agencies in 2018. Many of them were never convicted of a crime or even prosecuted. Those are some of the findings of a report released June 30 by the Michigan State Police on the practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Most of the seized property was cash ($13,481,835), according to the report, was then used by police agencies to supplement their own budgets.

Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture law was adopted in 1978 with the intent of depriving criminals, especially drug dealers, of the proceeds from illegal activity. But critics say the practice too often tramples on the property rights of low-level drug users, some of whom are never prosecuted for the underlying alleged crime. In April, the Michigan Legislature enacted reforms to the law. Starting in August, there must be a criminal conviction, in most situations, before officials can retain seized assets.

According to the report, property was seized from more than 6,000 persons in Michigan in 2018. Of these individuals, only 2,810 were convicted of the crime for which the property was seized, and 514 were never charged at all.

Jarrett Skorup, the director of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has written extensively on civil asset forfeiture. He said of the report, “It’s disturbing ... that hundreds of people never charged with illegal activity are losing their property. Forfeiture should be used only on those convicted of a crime in which someone actually gained money or property from that illegal activity.”

Skorup said research by advocates for reform found many instances in which the target of forfeiture was not a drug kingpin. Instead, it was a low-income petty drug user whose $2,500 car was seized by police. Many such individuals are never charged, and they surrender ownership rather than contest the seizure in court, Skorup said.

To address the concerns of law enforcement officials, the new law requiring a conviction for forfeiture does not apply to property worth more than $50,000 if it may be associated with illegal drug trafficking. This property will still be subject to forfeiture even if its owner is not convicted of a crime.

In June, the Institute for Justice, a leading national advocate for forfeiture reform, released a study analyzing the effects of federal forfeiture practices on crime and drug use. It found them to be negligible. The study added that civil asset forfeiture is most intensely used in communities in financial duress.

“Forfeiture doesn’t help police to fight crime,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s lead legislative counsel, “but police do use it to raise revenue.”

McGrath said Michigan’s new forfeiture law “is an important step in reform ... but the important question is how it will affect state law enforcement and property owners (targeted by forfeitures) in the future.”