by Jayson Hawkins
Civil forfeiture, the government confiscation of cash or assets believed to be related to criminal activity, has been a favorite tool of police since the early days of the war on drugs. The process requires a low burden of proof, the money goes directly to police budgets, and proponents claim it hits drug dealers where it hurts, all of which make asset seizures popular among cops everywhere.
The problem, from the public’s perspective, is that police often confiscate money for no real reason at all and then refuse to give it back. As a result, several states, including Michigan, have enacted a series of reforms to hold police accountable and protect the property of law-abiding citizens.
In May 2022, however, Michigan legislators changed their laws again, this time to favor police. State Rep. Graham Filler (R) sponsored a bill that would allow police to seize cash or other property worth over $20,000 at airports without having to wait for a criminal conviction. Earlier reforms had required that impounded property could not be forfeited in civil court until the criminal process was complete. Now, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the bill into law, police can push forward with civil forfeiture even without actually having any proof a crime was committed.
Don Alban, an attorney for the Institute of Justice, called the bill a “step in the wrong direction” because “allowing authorities to take air travelers’ cash without a criminal conviction, simply because they have a large sum of money, is a blatant violation of their rights.”
Michigan police generally keep 90% of the money they seize, which provides a strong motive to allege criminal activity even without proof of wrongdoing. The accused must then prove that the money was not the result of illegal activity in civil court, where the procedures favor the police even more than in criminal court and there is no right to counsel for those who cannot pay. These problems are at the center of a class action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice against federal authorities and several states, including Michigan.
In the meantime, even though co-sponsor Alex Garza (D) claims the law makes Michigan “a safer place to live today,” that safety does not apply to people legally carrying lots of cash.
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