Michigan’s forfeiture laws must change to protect the innocent

This op-ed was originally published at MLive.com on July 27, 2015.

Jaw-dropping is the only way to describe the testimony given by Ginnifer Hency, a mother of four children, delivered to the Michigan House Judiciary Committee in June. She recounted the nightmare her family experienced when her home was raided and looted by the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department in July 2014.

Deputies took whatever they could, according to Hency. “They’ve had my stuff for 10 months now,” Hency told the committee. “My ladders, my iPads, my children’s iPads, my children’s phones, my medicine for my patients. Why a ladder? Why my vibrator? I don’t know, either. Why TVs?”

Hency, a registered medical marijuana patient and caregiver, was targeted because the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department because she was out of compliance with Michigan’s medical marijuana laws. She noted that police did not seize any of the equipment she uses to grow medical marijuana, but they took items that in no way related to her operation.

Though Hency initially faced possession and distribution charges, a district court judge dismissed them in May. After the judge’s ruling, Hency visited the prosecutor’s office and asked how she could get her property back.

“The prosecutor came out to me and said, ‘Well, I can still beat you in civil court. I can still take your stuff,'” she recalled. “I was at a loss. I literally just sat there dumbfounded. I was just assuming we’d setup a time and I would be able get my stuff back.”

Hency was operating inside the bounds of Michigan’s medical marijuana law, and the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department wrongly targeted her. Needless to say, her family should get their property back. But under Michigan’s current civil asset forfeiture laws, Hency may never see her stuff again.

In a recent FreedomWorks publication, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States, Michigan received a grade of D, showing it as one of the worst states for due process rights and private property protections for innocent people.

The state government can forfeit property by demonstrating only “a preponderance of the evidence” — a more than 50 percent likelihood that property seized is connected to an alleged crime. Unlike most states, where the burden of proof in civil asset forfeiture proceedings falls on property owners, prosecutors in Michigan must prove the property owner knew the seized items were connected to an illicit act.

Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws encourage abuse. The seizing law enforcement agency can keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures, creating a perverse profit motive to target even law-abiding citizens. In 2013 alone, state and local law enforcement in Michigan seized more than $24 million worth of cash and property.

Hency is not the only example of abuse of Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws. There are many others. In another egregious instance, Detroit police seized 44 vehicles from attendees at a “Funk Night” event because the venue failed to secure a liquor license. These property owners, in a legal form of extortion, were forced to pay $900 to get their vehicles back.

Thankfully, reforms are working through the Michigan Legislature to offer more protections for innocent property owners.

In June, thanks to the leadership of House Judiciary Chairman Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, a package of eight bills passed the House. Included in the package are measures that raise the standard of proof to “clear and convincing evidence,” just below the standard needed to secure a conviction in criminal court, and require more transparency and accountability from law enforcement agencies in the Michigan.

These much-needed, long overdue reforms are currently awaiting action in the state Senate, and it is not clear when, or if committees plan to move them through the upper chamber.

Momentum is building for forfeiture reform around the country. State legislatures have seen the abuses, and they have taken significant steps to protect innocent people and their property from this pernicious form of government overreach.

In April, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed the most comprehensive reform law in the country. The law, which requires a criminal conviction to forfeit property connected to a crime. Montana followed suit by passing a similar, though not as comprehensive reform. Other states, such as California and Pennsylvania, are currently considering reforms to their states’ civil asset forfeiture laws.

The reform package already passed by the Michigan House, while not as comprehensive as new laws in New Mexico and Montana, is a step in the right direction. These measures will offer protections for law-abiding Michiganders, rein in this form of government overreach, and promote accountability.

Michigan has an opportunity to continue this momentum at the state level. Republicans in the state Senate should get behind this reasonable civil asset forfeiture reform package and send it to the governor’s desk.