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Michigan's AG supports reform of civil forfeiture laws

For years, people in Michigan have been subject to having their personal property seized by the police, if officers suspect that property is somehow connected to a crime. And they do not necessarily have to give it back, even if the owner is never charged with a crime.

Sound unfair? This practice, known as civil forfeiture, has many critics, including -- perhaps surprisingly -- state Attorney General Bill Schuette. The AG recently pledged his support for an effort to reform Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws.

State lawmakers have crafted seven separate bills to deal with this controversial police power. While none of the bills would do away with civil forfeiture, they would at least require more transparency from the police and raise the burden of proof they must show to justify their keeping residents’ seized property. If passed, the legislation would require “clear and convincing” proof that the evidence had to do with a crime.

Under the current system, owners of seized property can try to get it back in civil court. But parties in civil court do not enjoy the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney, regardless of ability to pay. Thus, many people are unable to regain their rightful property, which might include bank accounts, cars, homes and other valuables.

Instead, the property winds up in the hands of the police, who use it to supplement their departments' budgets. This tactic can be highly profitable. In 2013 alone, law enforcement agencies in the state reported $24.3 million in civil forfeitures -- from drug-related cases alone.

It is not hard to see how this system can tempt police departments to abuse their power. In one case, officers raided a dance party and seized 44 cars, allegedly because the hosts were serving liquor without a license.

Schuette said he backs reform “as a lawyer and as attorney general,” according to MLive.com.

Police should have the power to seize evidence of a crime, as long as the suspect’s rights are protected. But when a seizure is to line a police department’s pockets, instead of to build a case against a suspect, that power is questionable at best.

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