Michigan once had one of the highest civil asset forfeiture rates in the country. This practice allows law enforcement to seize vehicles when someone is suspected of committing a drug offense. The reason for the forfeitures, according to law enforcement, is that they help stop crime rings, particularly those involved in drug trafficking. The problem is, those forfeitures often occurred even when the person involved was not convicted of a crime. Now, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has put a stop to many of the asset forfeitures occurring around the state.
In May, the Governor signed three bills into law that would stop many of the forfeitures once taking place on Michigan’s roads. The new law prevents police from seizing property when the suspect has not been convicted of a crime involving less than $50,000 is assets. These laws will turn Michigan from a state with one of the highest forfeiture rates to a state with some of the lowest. Only 11 other states have such laws.
“These new laws are necessary to stop the abuse of power being exhibited on a daily basis by law enforcement,” says Patrick Barone of Barone Defense Firm. “For too long, individuals were having their vehicles and other property taken from them, simply because the police suspected them of a crime. In many cases, not only were there were no convictions, but there were also no charges even laid.”
That is true. In 2017 alone, law enforcement seized over 2,500 vehicles under the pretense of suspecting people were in possession of marijuana, or other drug crimes. Of those seizures, 473 individuals were not convicted of a crime. In another 438 cases, the individuals involved were not even charged with a crime.
In Wayne County, where law enforcement aggressively seized vehicles on suspicion of drug crimes, individuals had to make a $900 payment to get their car back. That fine applied regardless of whether they were convicted, or even charged, of a crime. It was also in Wayne County that a woman filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s department for taking her car after finding only ten dollars worth of marijuana in it. Her lawsuit states it was a violation of her Eighth Amendment rights, protecting her from excessive fines.
While the new laws certainly do provide protections for those suspected of drug crimes, there are some exceptions. Police can still seize assets if the property has been abandoned, the owner cannot be found, or the owner waives the conviction requirement.
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