Robbed by the Police: Civil Forfeiture Laws in Michigan

March 11, 2015

On May 31, 2008, approximately 130 members of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit gathered for a monthly event featuring music and dancing.

Shortly after 2 a.m. Detroit police officers, dressed entirely in black, stormed into the CAID with guns drawn and ordered everyone present to lie face down.

Event attendees were detained, searched, and charged with loitering due to improper licensing on the part of CAID, of which patrons knew nothing about. Regardless, 130 citations for loitering were issued and over 40 cars were seized.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, federal and state law enforcement seizes property and money from civilians simply by asserting that their assets are connected to illegal activity. No criminal charges are ever pursued, and law enforcement is entitled to keeping millions of dollars in assets a year.

Often times, this money is used to supplement salaries or provide perks, creating a system of incentives whereby civilians are policed in order to produce a profit. Even when the police relented to giving the CAID patrons their cars back, they insisted on a $900 complaint fee, plus towing and storage.

Fortunately, in 2012, a federal judge ruled with the ACLU of Michigan, citing the unconstitutionality of detaining and seizing the property of innocent people without providing due process.

However, the practice is still alive and well.

Thomas Williams, a 72 year-old man from St. Joseph, MI was home alone day in November 13 when police in black masks and guns at their side stormed his home without a warrant.

Sound familiar?

Abuses such as these are recurring in the state of Michigan, where civil asset forfeiture laws rank among the most abusive in the nation. Williams was suspected of committing a crime, but there was neither enough evidence to charge him nor an attempt by the police to do so.

Instead, his car, television, cell phone, a shotgun, and $11,000 in cash were taken from him.

Civil asset forfeiture laws exacerbate the abusive relationship between the police and communities of color, who are already deemed suspicious and prone to illegal activity by law enforcement. These communities are then forced to jump through bureaucratic and financially taxing hoops in order to get their property back.

It’s high time that Michigan see that civil asset forfeiture laws are no longer being used as a smokescreen for police profiteering at the expense of civil liberties and property rights.

By Sarah Goomar, ACLU of Michigan Fellow