Opinion | Softening Michigan civil asset forfeiture laws helps drug dealers

Robert Stevenson is the retired chief of police from the Livonia Police Department and current Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Update: Michigan civil asset forfeiture bills headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Timbs v. Indiana last  October, the court said, in essence, “Let’s make the punishment fit the crime.” To our criminal justice system, the ruling said, “Be sure that any seizure of property is proportional to whatever crime or illicit activity occurred.”

What it did NOT say is: Protect from seizure the assets that the police can establish are derived from drug dealing. Yet, this is exactly what will happen if Senate Bill 2 or House Bills 4001 and 4002 are enacted.

The rhetoric repeatedly spread by proponents of this legislation is that the police can stop someone for having a headlight out and if they are carrying cash, the police can simply seize their money. This is absolutely incorrect and highly offensive. Property can ONLY be seized when there is probable cause to believe that the money is from drug proceeds or assets. This is the same level of proof the police must have before they arrest someone.

Related: For cash-strapped police in Michigan, asset forfeiture bills could be a blow

It is important to reiterate that anyone who has had suspected drug proceeds or assets seized has the following rights:

  • Notice – A written notice is served explaining a person’s rights.
  • Claim – A person can file a claim to contest the seizure.
  • Defense – A person can assert any legal defense.
  • Discovery – A person can request civil discovery as permitted by court rules.
  • Day in Court – A trial heard by an independent court during which the government must prove its case.

Michigan has already enacted important forfeiture reforms with the support of law enforcement. Three examples include:  1) raising the standard of legal proof in asset forfeiture cases to “clear and convincing,” which is the highest civil standard; 2) creating a statewide system for reporting all seizures by police, and 3) eliminating the need for defendants to post a bond if they challenge a forfeiture.

Those who would eliminate forfeiture – or make it hard to utilize – should know the history on why it came to be. About 40 years ago, we faced a rising scourge of unfettered drug dealing. Heroin and crack cocaine were decimating neighborhoods. Yet, when officers arrested drug dealers, they had no way to seize their assets. Criminal gangs could keep enormous profits and other assets at sites apart from where their drugs were sold.  Shortly after the arrest occurred, many dealers quickly went back into business while awaiting trial using the same vehicles, cash and drug dens.

Asset forfeiture was a breakthrough that enhanced public safety. Even when we could not get convictions of high-level dealers, we could disrupt their profits by confiscating their assets. Complicit landlords were forced to either evict drug-dealing tenants or risk losing their real estate.

Since enacting reforms during the 2015-2016 legislative session, it has not been proven that a problem currently exists. Stringent and transparent procedures are currently in place to protect citizens while keeping drug dealers from profiting. The testimony being provided about “alleged” abuses of the forfeiture laws pre-date these expansive and meaningful reforms.

Law enforcement will be severely handicapped if state lawmakers succumb to the misconception that no forfeiture should take place without a conviction on proceeds under $50,000. It is a dramatic misunderstanding that a conviction can be obtained in all drug cases. Drugs and proceeds are not always discovered together which makes obtaining criminal convictions in certain instances impossible. Linking civil asset forfeiture to a criminal conviction allows drug dealers to continue profiting from dealing death in our communities. Illicit drug activity will again flourish at the expense of public safety.

The $50,000 threshold found in this legislation simply means that drug dealers will transport money in sums of less than $50,000. The scenarios I fear involve finding suspects in a house or a car in possession of $49,000 in cash with no valid explanation. Drugs may not be present, but everything else confirms and indicates drug trafficking, i.e., ledger books, scales, pre-recorded narcotics buy funds and packaging materials. In this particular scenario, as well as a multitude of others, the police and prosecutors could not establish a case to seize anything if Michigan adopts the $50,000 threshold.

If these statutory amendments are enacted, they will mandate linking the final disposition of a criminal case with a civil forfeiture. There are numerous ethical reasons that this has not been done in the past. Lower-level offenders often have an incentive to work with law enforcement to target major dealers and, as a result, receive a lesser offense or no conviction at all. This is clearly in the interest of justice and furthers public safety. Requiring a conviction to proceed with a civil forfeiture works to the detriment of both defendants and law enforcement under these oft-repeated circumstances.  

For the sake of our public safety, let’s keep Michigan’s current sensible forfeiture law intact.

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Comments

Boulder
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 7:15am

Despite Mr. Stevenson high-minded statements about forfeiture, the bottom line is this: he wants to maintain the system under which law enforcement officers and prosecutors can confiscate citizens' automobiles, real estate, cash, banked funds, and other property; make recovery so difficult as to make the forfeitures permanent for all practical purposes, and be able to do that to citizens who haven't been convicted of a crime.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 7:23am

"This is absolutely incorrect and highly offensive. Property can ONLY be seized when there is probable cause to believe that the money is from drug proceeds or assets. This is the same level of proof the police must have before they arrest someone."

No. The problem isn't with property being seized, it is when property is KEPT when there is no conviction of a crime.

There is absolutely nothing sensible about that line of reasoning...unless Chief Stevenson is arguing for legalized theft by the government?

Is THAT what you're advocating for, Chief Stevenson?

Ann Farnell
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:31pm

I can hardly believe it, but I totally agree with you, Kevin. It is legalized theft!

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 8:51am

The author's case would be much more convincing if the confiscated assets did not go to his present or former office or members of his profession. If asset forfeiture is retained in any way, the proceeds should go to a general fund and not be earmarked for the benefit of those who make the arrests or inherit the seized property. There should, in other words, be separation between those who say an offense has been committed and those who receive any rewards from the criminal citation.

Boiling
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:00am

Besides; he would have you believe that this money is used solely in a way as to combat these types of crime specifically, the money is not spent in this way. Purchases of ordinary police equipment like radios and computers are often where this money goes. It should be distributed by all who are affected by these criminals. Our Ambulances and Fire Departments have to respond to Overdoses and families are ruined by these criminals, not to mention the increased visits to Emergency Rooms. The money should be evenly spent on all affected people and organizations, what about the victims? In the end, how about using your budgets and spending within your means, families have to, yet Police Departments use this method and traffic fines for income rather than spending what they have in the bank.

Plubius
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 9:25am

Don't believe a word he says as he, and his ilk, directly profit from the current laws.

Instead, try searching on 'michigan police seizure requirements' and you will find a plethora of validated news stories about people whose property was seized and who were a) never charged with a crime and b) had to sue in order to have their property returned to them.

The current laws are nothing more than carte blanche for the police to steal from the people. Further, they typically target low-valued property, i.e., property owned by poor people, since they know that those people are less capable of fighting them in court.

Keep in mind that these are the very same people who go around murdering unarmed black men with impunity...

Chris
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 9:53am

Prove it. It really is that simple. I completely understand where the practice comes from, but that doesn't justify it. The freedom from governmental seizure of property is so important to this country that it was baked into the bill of rights. The fact that civil asset forfeiture makes law enforcement's job easier or more convenient doesn't make it right.

I completely agree that, "the police can stop someone for having a headlight out and if they are carrying cash, the police can simply seize their money," is indeed offensive. However, it is absolutely accurate. The Institute for Justice has compiled countless stories of folks who have gone through exactly this situation. To argue that it doesn't happen is simply dishonest and brings into question the author's motivations.

The typical situation is an out of state traveler getting pulled over. The law enforcement officer finds cash or valuable property in the vehicle and says he suspects that it is derived from illegal (usually drug) activity. He then tells the traveler that they can either sign this little form and forfeit the property, or they can chose to be arrested and present their case to a judge. (It matters not if the police actually have any reason to arrest. They are under no legal obligation to be truthful.) Most people, intimidated by the prospect of even a night in jail, having their travel plans delayed, and a potentially expensive and time consuming legal process in a state 1/2 way across the country from where they live, simply sign the form and surrender the property.

Bottom line, as an agent of the government, you want to seize someone's property, get a conviction. After conviction, then pursue vigorously any assets or money that results from illegal activity. Might it make your job a little harder or more frustrating? Sure, but oh well. My constitutional rights trump your desire for an easier job.

John Q. Public
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:55am

Re: police having no obligation to be truthful.

That's another problem that needs to--but won't--be addressed by the legislature: the double standard on truthfulness. The police can lie as much as they want to citizens, but for citizens to lie to the police is a crime. I don't care whether the standard is "truthfulness is required" or "lying is permitted", but it ought to be the same for both parties.

G.Chavez
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:17pm

Amen

David Frye
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:03am

The major (and obvious) problem with asset forfeiture is that it gives the police a perverse incentive to seize property from the defenseless regardless of guilt or innocence. The only remedy to this problem (short of outlawing forfeiture altogether) is to mandate that all property and funds seized must be handed over to an independent third party. I propose that all seized assets should be earmarked for funding the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. Handing over the assets to the defense side of justice would be entirely fitting, and would eliminate the potential for moral corruption inherent in the practice of forfeiture.

Joshua Garner
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:05am

Only religious people think it's ok to tell others what they can and can't do. There is no rational justification for anti-drug laws. On top of that, civil forfeitures are vile. Shame on you for your garbage religion and arrogance.

LvB
Wed, 03/27/2019 - 4:10pm

Hear, hear!

Rick
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:11am

Of course Mr. Stevenson is in little risk of ever having his assets seized (white, former police officer who can prove it, lives in a nice neighborhood, has the right friends in the right places) but if all of a sudden he was stopped 'on suspicion' of a drug deal he'd be pretty pissed off when everything of his was taken and he had to pay to sue to get it back.

Doug L
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:29am

I remain 100% unconvinced. If the government is to seize and keep property, there must be due process of law. It is only reasonable that this due process includes a conviction. I doubt the police would be too anxious to seize property if their department didn't get to keep it.

John Q. Public
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:39am

Better a thousand drug dealers enrich themselves with ill-gotten gains than a single innocent person be unjustly deprived of his legitimate property by the police.

Andrew
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:42am

Well said!

Aldon M.
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:49am

I am against civil asset forfeiture laws. First, no property should be taken from anyone with out being convicted of an offense. Officers of the law are to protect and serve, not confiscate when ever they see fit. As others have said, it is better that convicts go free than to have one innocent person unjustly deprived of his property. That is why we have courts, it puts someone between us and our accusers, to determine if a crime has been committed and property can be taken. This is to prevent the person who feels that an infraction has occurred from determining the penalty and pocketing the money. This is fraud prevention. In accounting and any civil organization, you never have the person who sends out the bill collect the check.

Nunya
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:49am

This guy can take his opinion and shove it right up his ass. Civil asset forfeiture without conviction is a direct and egregious violation of the 4th Amendment.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:46pm

And also the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Section 1.

Glenn Dowdy
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:52am

They need to be softened! The police departments are abusing these laws just to fatten up their budgets. This makes for easy abuse.

Thomas Jefferson
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:53am

It’s a shame this officer went home safe. Criminals with badges like him should be in the ground, with other tyrants.

Thomas Jefferson
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:53am

It’s a shame this officer went home safe. Criminals with badges like him should be in the ground, with other tyrants.

Nick Ascher
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:02am

Surprise surprise: A former police chief supports Police stealing from people to grow their own budgets. Literally stealing, that's what it is. Fuck you, you're a criminal, having a badge and permission of politicians does not change the fact that you are a thief.

Bones
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:11am

ACAB. Nothing more, nothing less

Jeffrey Kless
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:12am

Mr Stevenson's argument is compelling except The War on Drugs has been going on for over 40 years and it is has and will be a failure. It has only succeeded in expending hundreds of billions of dollars just like Vietnam and Afganistan

Jeffrey Kless
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:12am

Mr Stevenson's argument is compelling except The War on Drugs has been going on for over 40 years and it is has and will be a failure. It has only succeeded in expending hundreds of billions of dollars just like Vietnam and Afganistan

Clifford Babcock
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:13am

This guy needs to move on. We don't need his one sided obstructionist ideas.

Andrew
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:41am

Well, the war on drugs is stupid and unconstitutional anyway. So two wrongs make a right here, I suppose?

Boris
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 4:15pm

Don't you see? We have to ruin people's lives with convictions so they can't ruin their lives with drugs. Also we need to steal their property so we have more funding to steal more people's property and ruin more people's lives for making personal decisions we don't agree with.

Jimmy
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:58am

Hey there ole Robs Stolensen - this didn’t go exactly as you thought it would did it. The state should never be able to take a citizen’s property.

Gary
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:11pm

"Even when we couldn't get a conviction."

Well, there's your problem. You didn't make the case, you took the money anyway.

Becky
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 12:39pm

No conviction, no forfeiture. If you can't prove your case, you should not be able to take someone's property. It's theft, plain and simple.

Robert Honeyman
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 2:49pm

Loose civil forfeiture rules are a fairly recent phenomenon. This attack on the property rights of "suspects" did not improve policing of drug offenders. It did, however, allow wholesale relief to ever-tightening budgets at the expense of folks stopped in large part because of driving while black. And, failure to convict has not meant restitution of the seized assets.

Policing in this country needs to revert to a time when the safety of the citizens was paramount. Where talk first was the rule, not shoot and then ask. I guarantee you that every traffic stop causes tension in the officer involved. It's the nature of the business. That tension is the fallback for justifying all the murders committed by law enforcement officials across the nation.

Civil forfeiture is just an extension of the ascendency of policing from a service to an occupying force.

Alexander Beaton
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 4:46pm

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..."

Without a criminal conviction, seizure of assets is not reasonable. It seems very clear, and also a conflict of interest. We have many Constitutional rights, and the 4th Amendment is no lesser than the others. We should put an end to this systematic abuse, no matter who the entrenched interest is that advocates for it.

G.Chavez
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 9:55pm

This lying p.o.s. Softening any American forfeiture laws protects U.S. citizens from greedy, out of control, anti-constitution, crooked cops! Period!

Mike Lardner
Tue, 03/26/2019 - 9:55pm

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 03/27/2019 - 10:34am

Unlike in our criminal justice system, there was apparently no presumption of innocence. It was up to the person whose property was seized to sue to get it back. This obviously disadvantages everyone except those who keep a lawyer on the payroll--including most of us.

Apologists for the past civil assets forfeiture scheme might have a case to make if the police departments already had to prove probable cause in court before they could seize assets--but they currently don't have to do that. Without some legal process BEFORE seizure there is no due process and it is clearly unconstitutional.

Mark
Wed, 03/27/2019 - 8:27pm

It takes a special kind of gullibility to believe the cops are really interested in crippling drug dealers instead of lining their own pockets. The aim is to stack the deck against innocent people so they have to invest countless hours and thousands in legal fees to get their property back, if they ever do. You brought these bills on yourselves by abusing civil asset forfeiture for DECADES. Your crocodile tears don't sway me, Chief. Cry me a river.

Tom Purcell
Sun, 03/31/2019 - 1:04pm

what would you expect this moron to say?

the coppers lost out on so much revenue by legalization. I am thrilled.
what we need to look into is the huge increase in operating under the influence of
alcohol by law enforcement, esp the michigan state police.

Martin Magid
Sun, 03/31/2019 - 6:13pm

It is hard for me to believe that this is an issue given our Constitution. If there is no conviction, there should be no punishment, no matter how it is polished.

Faith Dandois
Sun, 03/31/2019 - 6:38pm

We remember when the police said they would only use the property seizures for drug kingpins. You lied. Now if you change the wording of the law to apply only to drug king pins and define drug king pins then maybe it's worth a rethink. Will you include big pharm CEO's who gouge us at prices many times what their drugs are actually worth? I might go for that but what I'm seeing here is the same garbage rationalizations from the last time you lied to the citizenry. Nope nope and nope. This is exactly why the fifth amendment was written...to stop the authorities from stealing from the populace for petty crimes and misdemeanors and non-violent offenses...etc. so they can further entrench their illegitimate authority.

Equality for All
Wed, 04/03/2019 - 1:53pm

As the saying goes, what's good enough for the goose is good enough for the gander. If law enforcement believes it's appropriate to seize assets when a citizen is suspected of having committed a crime, then let's apply it to cops.
We know the nation is suffering through an epidemic of cops shooting unarmed persons of color and other victims of excessive police violence. Weekly we learn of cops filling up folks with 10+ rounds like the execution of an minority last week who merely fell asleep in their car. Monthly we learn of cops who perform drug raids on the wrong homes, tearing up the place, killing their pets, occasionally killing folks, and then shrugging their shoulders offering zero compensation in response. "Paperwork error. Oopsies!"
What we need is Cop Forfeiture. When a cop has been accused of excessive force, unlawful killing, theft, errors targeting the wrong persons, etc., then the victims are entitled to seize the property of the cops and their families.
Let's show up at an unethical cops house and take their cars, boats, kids computers, furniture, and even the homes. According to Robert's logic here, this would almost certainly cause dirty or lazy cops to stop killing folks and hurting the innocent. And hey, if a cop doesn't care about the law, shouldn't they have their stuff taken away?
We can expect law enforcement that celebrates civil forfeiture to fully embrace this as well, given it 1) reduces dirty/incompetent cop behavior, 2) punishes bad cops making the force better, and 3) is consistent with their own takings of property without the requirement of a conviction and sentence issued.
We look forward to Robert's endorsement as we're certain he's against dirty cops too!

Gene Quagmire
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 2:06pm

Hard to imagine why a police chief in the whitest town on earth would want to keep this racist and discriminatory process alive.

How about de-militarizing the police and turning them back into community servants? Oh wait, no money in that. Stop trying to convince a grown man that something that encourages cops to become thieves is a good idea.

Sok Puppette
Mon, 04/08/2019 - 7:12pm

Probable cause is not any kind of proof, nor does it "establish" anything in any meaningful way. And neither is preponderance of the evidence, which is what you actually need to keep anything if anybody bothers to challenge the forfeiture system.

If you want to deprive somebody of property, the correct standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt". A criminal punishment is still a criminal punishment no matter how much you want to dress it up as something else, and criminal punishments demand criminal standards of proof.

I'm sure it'd be very convenient if cops could just shoot people on suspicion of being drug dealers. Or on probably cause, if you want. Maybe they could rely on their "training and experience", or some other happy words for prejudice and confirmation bias. If cops had that power, then a change to require an actual conviction would also "help drug dealers". Luckily, though, we don't have that kind of psychotic authoritarianism yet. So let's also get rid of the psychotically authoritarian asset forfeiture scheme.

What's "highly offensive" is the idea that anybody sworn to uphold the law would want such low standards. Such people should go crawl back under the rocks from which they came. Drug dealers have never been, and never will be, one tenth the threat to society these people are.

Billy Mahana
Mon, 04/08/2019 - 9:15pm

Wow, reading through all the comments. Not a single one supporting Stevenson. Guess that isn't turning out how he thought it would. I agree with almost every single other writer here. A well known tech blog that happens to follow some things regarding forfeiture on the side penned an article on this too (they are what led me here). For anyone interested:
https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20190326/09193241871/former-police-chi...

Definitely glad to see nobody backing the crappy opinion of the cop. It is about time my state finally moves to make things better for its citizens.

Gerard Snecklehouse
Mon, 04/08/2019 - 9:17pm

Don't dignify this babbler for theft with the title "Chief." He's nothing but a low-grade pickpocket and thief.

Hugh Jediot
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 6:38am

If no conviction can be obtained, then the person is legally innocent due to the basic fundemental principles of justice.

Continuing to punish a person even after they have not been found guilty is to act as both law enforcement and judiciary. Police have no entitlement to enact punishments on the basis of their own opinion

Shut your mouth, stay in your lane, do your job. If your opinion is need, it will be asked for.

Why would you ask
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 8:59am

I can't help but wonder if LEO Stevenson would think the same if he just for a minute stood in the side of the thin blue line where all the rest of us the people they "protect" and "serve" actually reside.
His privilege is showing.

marcus
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 9:09am

This op-ed is probable cause sufficient to convince me that Mr. Stevenson enjoys profiting from literal highway robbery. Ergo, his assets should, by his own argument, be forfeit forthwith.

Mossdale
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 11:01am

"Changing forfeiture laws will make it impossible for us to make money."

Fixed it for you.

Mark Harger
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 12:18pm

Shame on you, Chief Stevenson. The views espoused in this article are embarrassing

Bill Moore
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 12:53pm

What the F**k? This PoS should lose his pension for this rollicking pile of lies and bad policy. God help the community that hired this wanker as a cop. Let's hope the DA goes back and checks to see how many fake arrests and convictions this a**hat put in place while in office. Sheesh.

Chris
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 9:44pm

Are Michigan police so inept that they need to fall into something to get convictions?

I want those who are there to protect and to serve to actually prove crimes were committed. That's the job.

Maybe it's just as well thew author is a retired LEO.

Stephanie Landres
Wed, 04/10/2019 - 7:53am

This has got to be one of the most twisted and absurd rants I've seen in a long time. Thank God at least this trash pile of a police officer is no longer actually employed in that capacity.