Last year, two Michigan self-described “soccer moms” were the victims of raids conducted by local law enforcement officials, who took telephones, televisions and cash from the women’s homes under civil asset forfeiture laws.
The women, Ginnifer Hency and Annette Shattuck, have never been found guilty of a crime.
Inspired by cases such as these, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state legislature are working to reform the very laws that gave law enforcement the power to take Hency and Shattuck’s belongings.
A package of eight bills reforming Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws passed the state House of Representatives with overwhelming support last month and was referred to the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee, where hearings are expected.
“When we get elected and go to the capital for our first day, we swear an oath to uphold the state and federal Constitution, and there are great amendments in the Bill of Rights to protect people from unreasonable search and seizure and guarantee Americans have due process,” Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, told The Daily Signal.
“Asset forfeiture is in conflict with those constitutional principles,” he continued. “In America, you should be innocent until proven guilty, and Americans have been harmed and had their assets taken without any due process and without any determination of guilt. That’s a basic problem.”
Irwin sponsored one of the bills included in the forfeiture reform package.
The legislation raises the burden of proof in forfeiture proceedings from a “preponderance of evidence,” a low standard, to “clear and convincing evidence,” which would require law enforcement to prove that the property seized is connected to a crime. It would also add new reporting requirements and prohibit police from seizing vehicles that are operated by people purchasing small amounts of marijuana.
“There are great amendments in the Bill of Rights to protect people from unreasonable search and seizure and guarantee Americans have due process. Asset forfeiture is in conflict with those constitutional principles,” said Michigan Rep. Jeff Irwin.
Civil asset forfeiture is a procedure that gives law enforcement the power to seize property and money if it’s suspected of being related to a crime. The tool’s early intentions were to curb money laundering and drug trafficking, but innocent Americans have had their assets taken despite never being charged with a crime.
In recent years, a number of high-profile forfeiture cases have emerged, prompting legislative action in several states and at the federal level.
But many law enforcement officials support forfeiture, because the profits are used to bolster agency budgets.
“The primary goal of asset forfeiture is to deter and punish drug criminals by taking away the goods, property and money obtained through illegal activity,” Kriste Etue, director of the Michigan State Police, wrote in a July 2014 report to the Michigan Legislature. “The impact of this law is that it saves taxpayer money when asset forfeitures are utilized to support enhancements to state and local law enforcement.”
Still, Michigan lawmakers contend that they are not trying to end forfeiture for good, but are only working to protect innocent Michiganders who fall victim to the procedure.
“I think there is a need for some sort of forfeiture. I don’t think it’s something that should go away,” said Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, who sponsored one of the bills included, in an interview with The Daily Signal. “You have to look at instances where there are large drug dealers and kingpins, and that is a tool in the toolbox.”
“We want to make sure it’s not an abused system,” Sheppard continued. “We want to make sure it’s done properly and the rights of citizens are protected.”
In the Great Lake State, many victims who have had money and property seized by law enforcement under civil asset forfeiture laws have come forward in recent months.
And their anecdotes have fueled lawmakers working to reform the laws.
The victims detailed raids conducted by local and state law enforcement that resulted in the seizure of items like televisions, laptops, telephones and cash.
Shattuck and Hency spoke of their individual experiences at a hearing before the Michigan House Judiciary Committee in May. The women are both registered medical marijuana caregivers, and they both had their homes raided by the St. Clair County Drug Task Force last year.
“After they breached my door, at gunpoint, with masks, they proceeded to take every belonging in my home,” Shattuck said at the hearing. “And when I say every belonging, I mean every belonging.”
Both Shattuck and Hency originally faced charges for marijuana-related offenses. All of Hency’s charges were dropped, but she still hasn’t had her belongings returned. Three of Shattuck’s six charges have been dropped.
“There was broad acknowledgement that at least in some cases, this tool is being used against people it was never meant to be used against,” Irwin said of civil asset forfeiture. “It produces some anecdotes that are hair-raising and disappointing.”
A February investigation by the Detroit Free Press also recounted Michiganders’ experiences with civil asset forfeiture laws.
Law enforcement raided the home of Thomas Williams, 72, in 2013 and seized $11,000 in cash. The law enforcement officials also took Williams’ television, Dodge Journey and shotgun.
Williams, a cancer patient, was licensed to grow medical marijuana, and police suspected he was growing more than what was legally permitted. The 72-year-old was never charged with a crime and is still fighting to get his things back.
“We want to make sure it’s not an abused system. We want to make sure it’s done properly and the rights of citizens are protected,” said Michigan Rep. Jason Sheppard.
>>> Interested in learning more? Read “Arresting Your Property: How Civil Asset Forfeiture Turns Police Into Profiteers”
In Michigan, law enforcement officials keep all of the property and money they seize, which has turned civil asset forfeiture into a money-making venture for agencies.
According to a report from the Michigan State Police, law enforcement seized $24.3 million in property and money through civil asset forfeiture in 2013 alone.
Additionally, a Washington Post investigation conducted last year found that since 2001, law enforcement seized $47.7 million worth of money and property from citizens who weren’t charged with a crime. More than $35 million went directly back to the state.
Michigan scored a “D-” in a 2010 report from the Institute for Justice which examined forfeiture laws across all 50 states. Just four other states received a “D-”, the lowest grade the organization awarded.
To remove the profit incentive of forfeiture, John Malcolm, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, called for reforms that require proceeds to be deposited into the state’s general fund.
Legislation introduced at the federal level would do just that. However, the package of bills making its way through the Michigan Legislature doesn’t address the profit incentive created by civil asset forfeiture. State lawmakers, though, are hopeful the new reporting requirements will help shape future legislation and shed more light on how forfeiture is being used.
“We’re not talking about laws in Michigan to stop forfeiture,” Irwin said. “We’re talking about transparency and a higher burden of proof. If these laws pass, hopefully we will have a better idea of how these tools are used.”
“Is it a tool that’s being used to take down major criminal operations? I don’t think so,” he continued. “This reporting language will get to the bottom of that. Are we going after people who have never been charged with a crime, or is it a tool to reach into the pockets of major drug operations?”