People across Michigan have seen their cars, their TVs, their kids’ iPads, even their homes seized by police, often despite never having been charged with or convicted of a crime.
It’s called “civil asset forfeiture,” and it means that state or federal agents can seize your property if they so much as suspect that it has been involved in criminal activity.
The push against civil asset forfeiture is growing.
A new coalition of conservative and progressive groups has come together under the name Fix Forfeiture, and it has made Michigan one of three states it will target this year for reform.
“Our goal is to push the entire process post-conviction,” Fix Forfeiture Senior Project Director Holly Harris says, “which means that no agent of the government can seize your property unless you’ve been charged with or convicted of a crime.”
The real challenge in Michigan and across the country, Harris tells us, is that there are no stringent reporting requirements for seized assets.
According to Harris, Michigan law enforcement agencies have collected more than $250 million in forfeiture revenue since 2000, with more than $24 million in cash and assets seized in 2013.
“What we don’t know is whether those seizures and forfeitures were ever connected with a criminal conviction,” she says.
A forfeiture reform package has already been approved by the state House that among other goals looks to increase the burden of proof required to keep seized property as well as require police to follow new reporting and transparency standards.
Harris tells us that while that piece of legislation satisfies a few of Fix Forfeiture’s goals in Michigan, they are seeking legislation focused mainly on increased transparency and reporting.
She says that when most legislators are implementing policy, they want it to be data-driven, which is a problem when the data isn’t being reported in a reliable and consistent way.
“At the federal level, 80% of individuals from whom the government seized funds or property were never charged with a crime,” Harris says. “Once that data is in hand and we can see ... if it mirrors what’s happening at the federal level, well then we know it’s time to go further.”
Fix Forfeiture is a rare beast. It isn’t often you’ll see such conservative and progressive groups coming together to work toward a common goal, but Harris says that’s a sign that forfeiture is a huge problem.
“It’s not like this a partisan issue. You’ve got the ACLU and the Mackinac Center, Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks,” she says. “Our goal here is to ensure that no agent of the government can take your property without due process of law.”
Listen to our interview with Holly Harris above to learn more about the state of civil asset forfeiture.