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Michigan lawmakers vote to limit civil asset forfeiture

Catherine Shaffer
Laurie Snyder

In Michigan, police can seize your property if they believe it’s involved in a crime. And they can auction it off before you’re convicted of anything. Actually, before you’re even charged with a crime.

Critics have been trying to outlaw that practice for years. With new bills passed in the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives, they’re closer than they’ve ever been to making that happen.

Laurie Snyder lives in a small town north of Grand Rapids. She and her fiance are just moving into a house that they’re fixing up. Her five cats are settled in already. Things are looking up for them after a tough couple of years.

In 2013, police raided Snyder’s home. At the time, she was a medical marijuana caregiver. She grew plants for herself and three other patients. She had never been in any kind of trouble with the law before.

The raid left her stunned. “I just was blown away that the police--it was like, it was like they came in and robbed me and said, have a great day and left. And I was like, what just happened?” Snyder says.

They took her car. Her plants. Her grow equipment…and seventy-two dollars from her purse.

Within weeks, her property was cleared for auction--before charges were even filed.

It’s a practice called civil asset forfeiture. And it’s a regular source of funding for law enforcement. Civil asset forfeiture laws were put in place to target drug kingpins by attacking their finances. But there's a growing out cry from Michigan citizens who say police abuse the system for profit.

Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Snyder lives on disability checks. She couldn’t afford the $500 bond to fight the forfeiture. So her property was sold.

Friends pooled their money to hire a lawyer for her, and the charges were dismissed. But that didn’t get her car back.

Snyder says, “I wanna say it took me close to seven months to save up the money to buy another vehicle of my own. Part of that was because during that time I had to pay other people to come pick me up take me to the grocery store to run my errands. So yeah it set me back.”

Senator Peter Lucido (R-8) has been a vocal critic of civil asset forfeiture ever since he was a public defender thirty years ago. His bill that would make police wait until they get a conviction to begin the forfeiture process. That's where seized property is legally transferred into police ownership. “Basically it’s to go ahead and level the playing field and make it fair again. No property right should be diminished as a result of police officers taking. And no one should lose their property until convicted beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Lucido.

The new law would apply to assets worth less than fifty thousand dollars.

Senate and House versions of civil forfeiture reform have enjoyed strong bipartisan support. And a timely US Supreme Court decision is stirring up enthusiasm. The court ruled that large civil forfeitures may violate the constitution.

There’s still some opposition. Police groups and prosecuting attorneys have come out against it. Robert Stevenson is with the Michigan Association of Police Chiefs. He says the new limits on civil asset forfeiture will take away an important tool that allows them to clean up neighborhoods by seizing drug traffickers’ revenue streams. “Ultimately, it’ll be the citizens that feel the negative impact of this when we can’t do the enforcement actions that we used to do to keep their neighborhoods safe,” Stevenson says.

Some reforms have been implemented since Laurie Snyder’s raid. People no longer have to pay a bond to challenge a seizure. And police are required to document their forfeitures.

But cases like Snyder’s keep happening. Since 2017, there were about 200 instances where the government kept someone’s property even after they were found not guilty. And there were more than 700 cases where the government kept property without ever charging anyone with a crime. That’s according to data obtained by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Credit Mackinac Center for Public Policy

After her charges were dismissed, Snyder tried to find a way to get back what the police took from her. All the lawyers she contacted said it would cost more to sue the police than her property was worth. Snyder says, “I’m really happy that our legislature now is looking at changing that, because it does really need to be changed.”  She hopes that reforming the law will protect others from losing property like she did.

Catherine Shaffer joined Michigan Radio in 2014. She works in the newsroom and specializes in stories related to the life sciences, health, and technology. Catherine earned a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Michigan State University and a Master’s from University of Michigan. Prior to Michigan Radio, Catherine has worked as a freelance writer, mainly in focusing on biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry, since 2001. She is also an award-winning fiction writer. When not at work, Catherine enjoys being in the outdoors and practicing yoga.
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