Research & Commentary: Michigan Considers Partial Reform of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Published March 7, 2019

Recently, many states have limited law enforcement agencies’ ability to seize property from criminal suspects without conclusive evidence of a crime, a process known as civil asset forfeiture. Currently, Michigan implements some of the nation’s most egregious civil asset forfeiture laws. In fact, Institute for Justice (IJ) analysts gave Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws a D-, one of the lowest grades in the country.

In January, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature that would limit the potential for civil asset forfeiture abuse. Senate Bill 2 would prohibit the seizure of property associated with a substance-related crime unless there is a conviction or plea agreement. The bill would be limited to seizures of property valued at $50,000 or less. The bill would also allow individuals to voluntarily give up their property or file a written objection regarding property seized without a warrant.

Despite some reforms in recent years, Michigan’s current civil asset forfeiture laws create a substantial incentive for state and local law enforcement agencies to seize assets. Unfortunately, this perverse incentive allows these agencies to retain up to 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds for use in their departments. According to IJ, from 2001 to 2013, Michigan law enforcement agencies reported “more than $244 million in gross forfeiture proceeds, averaging almost $19 million per calendar year.”

Another major problem with Michigan’s forfeiture policies is equitable sharing arrangements, whereby the suspected criminal activity is classified as a federal crime and the seized assets are divided between local law enforcement and federal officials. The federal agencies receive about 10 to 20 percent of the proceeds and the local police get the remainder. According to IJ, from 2000 to 2013, Michigan law enforcement agencies received “$127.6 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the DOJ, averaging $9.1 million per calendar year.”

In short, law enforcement agencies should only seize assets that are directly involved with a crime, should only seize assets after the suspect has been convicted, and should not be incentivized to seize any more property than is necessary and justified.

Although the Michigan bill addresses drug crime seizures, which represent a large portion of property seizures, it would not fully end the practice. It also does not address the incentive for law enforcement agencies to wrongfully seize property. Moreover, future reforms should ensure seized funds are directed toward education, crime prevention, or the general fund. Lastly, Michigan should close the equitable sharing loophole.

The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.

Civil Forfeiture in Michigan: A Review and Recommendations for Reforms
In this study, Jarrett Skorup and Dan Korobkin of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy explains how civil forfeiture works, how it differs from criminal forfeiture and what reforms state policymakers should consider in order to protect the rights of Michigan residents.

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture 2nd Edition
Dick Carpenter, Lisa Knepper, Angela Erickson, and Jennifer McDonald argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Civil forfeiture threatens the constitutional rights of all Americans. Using civil forfeiture, the government can take your home, business, cash, car or other property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity—and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime. Most people unfamiliar with this process would find it hard to believe that such a power exists in a country that is supposed to recognize and hold dear rights to private property and due process of law,” they write.

An Overview of Recent State-Level Forfeiture Reforms
Jason Snead of The Heritage Foundation examines civil asset forfeiture and how states are moving to reform their forfeiture laws.

Policing for Profit: Federal Equitable Sharing
In this report by The Institute for Justice (IJ), IJ examines federal equitable sharing laws and the effect they have on property seizures in the states.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.

Playing Both ‘Cops and Robbers’ on Asset Forfeiture
Jesse Hathaway, the managing editor of Budget & Tax News, examines in this article a new digital system that allows highway patrolmen to use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize individuals’ assets stored in bank accounts or on prepaid debit cards at the press of a button. “Civil asset forfeiture creates too many perverse economic incentives. However well-intentioned the idea may be, the practice of civil asset forfeiture has been corrupted and now infringes on Americans’ right to be free from harassment by money-hungry agents of the government,” wrote Hathaway.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses have drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.

Sidebar: Stricter State Law, More Equitable Sharing
The Institute for Justice examines a 2011 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice by criminologists Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Marian Williams that found local and state law enforcement agencies in states choosing to make civil forfeiture more difficult and less financially rewarding through state laws have tended to turn to federal equitable sharing to make up for lost funds.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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