On June 30th, the Michigan House of Representatives passed HB 4349, permitting asset forfeiture funds to be used for any law enforcement purposes not already otherwise budgeted for. Specifically, the legislation would strip the requirement that asset forfeiture funds be used for drug related police activity. Other than a provision safeguarding that the funds not be used as a substitute for what is already budgeted, the bill states only that asset forfeiture funds should be used for law enforcement. That rather vague description could presumably be just about anything law enforcement wants it to be.
It is clear (at least to us) that providing unchecked cash incentives to police departments to commit seizures is not in the public interest. And the foreseeable harm to the public interest is only exacerbated by the State of Michigan’s lack of due process protections concerning property rights. Michigan already allows for property to be seized without conviction. Upon seizure, property owners are placed in the adversarial position of proving the innocence of their property without the traditional presumptions of innocence that would accompany a criminal proceeding. And to add further worry, this bill amends the law to allow courts to require that property owners be made “to pay the expenses of the proceedings of forfeiture to the entity having budgetary authority over the seizing agency” without making any dispensations for innocence or predatory prosecution.
If Michigan were without any history of corruption, perhaps it would be more understandable that the Michigan House of Representatives has enacted legislation to incentivize police seizures. That simply is not the case. Michigan is awash in a history of police corruption. In March of this year, the FBI and the Michigan State Police Department raided the Romulus Michigan Police Department amid rumors of missing and/or misappropriated asset forfeiture funds, missing cocaine, and falsified time sheets. In February, members of the Michigan State Narcotics were charged with racketeering and embezzlement. A former member of the Michigan House of Representatives and a former Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, is currently incarcerated in a federal prison after years of corruption that has also served to stain the Michigan State Police and Detroit Police Departments. The longest serving Detroit Chief of Police, Bill Hart, was convicted of embezzling millions of taxpayer dollars. From 1994 to 2000, an estimated 220 pounds of cocaine was stolen from the Detroit Police Department evidence room to be resold on the streets of Detroit.
This isn’t to say that the police or Michigan police are bad. It is simply that if you craft laws that give human beings incentives to act badly in situations with little oversight, at least some of those humans are going to act badly. The stakes are too high to risk corrupting our police departments with these stupid, even if well intentioned, laws.