Crushing drug dealers and criminal cartels: that's the asset forfeiture narrative. The reality is something completely different. It's the government taking property from people with a minimum of due process, urged on by a set of perverse incentives. Law enforcement agencies directly profit from the stuff they take from people, so there's really no reason not to.
When the general public hears forfeiture is being used to target criminal cartels, they tend to think of piles of cash, luxury vehicles, sprawling mansions, and the occasional aircraft. In reality, it's whatever cash cops can find laying around (usually less than $1,000) and vehicles a couple of decades old that are someone's barely-reliable ride.
Whatever statistics can be obtained -- and it isn't much, given the secrecy cloaking these state-ordained seizures -- always tell the same story: 99% of civil asset forfeiture is penny ante bullshit. It's this way for several reasons. First, smaller forfeitures aren't worth fighting in court, so small ball seizures are almost guaranteed to end up in the hands of law enforcement. Second, it all adds up over the year. A bunch of small seizures turns into real money eventually. Third, cops aren't willing to let drug lords walk. But they'll take stuff from anyone they can imagine might be part of a cartel, even when it's someone busted carrying nothing more than a personal stash.
And that's if they even find contraband at all. The absence of criminal evidence seldom deters seizures, and forfeitures have been expanded to cover vehicles driven by impaired or uninsured drivers.
Wayne County, Michigan is no exception to this particularly depressing set of rules. As the Michigan Capitol Confidential reports, local law enforcement has seized millions of dollars worth of property, but a closer examination of the data shows its forfeiture programs prey on the poor and/or drug users who have nothing to do with the supply side of the Drug War.
Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. A state law passed in 2015 requires law enforcement agencies across Michigan to submit data about forfeiture to the Michigan State Police.
Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said the data shows nearly all of those Wayne County seizures involved vehicles valued at less than $1,000. He said it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property.
The report [PDF] doesn't break down the total value of vehicles seized, but the numbers bear out Skorup's claim. The state as a whole reported $13 million in net total proceeds from all property forfeited. $11 million of that was cash. There were 7,999 vehicles seized statewide. Simple division says that's only $250 per vehicle. State agencies also seized other property that wasn't vehicles or cash, further lowering the per vehicle estimate.
Now, there are a few unknown factors that may bring that number back up slightly. It's unclear whether this reflects proceeds after auctions, etc. that would result in a lower net total for the state due to differences in expected property value and its actual value after "disposal." This may raise the per vehicle value, but there's still a long way to go from the $250 baseline and a dollar amount that would suggest something other than what appears to be happening here: thousands of seizures of vehicles worth less than the legal costs that would be accrued fighting the forfeiture.
There's more disturbing data in the report beyond the apparent wholesale forfeiture of cars whose value barely exceeds the going rate for scrap. A vast majority of those targeted by forfeiture -- with or without accompanying criminal charges -- were caught with the lowest amounts needed to trigger criminal charges. 88% of cocaine-related seizures involved the less than 50 grams. 83% of marijuana-related seizures also involved the lowest amounts needed to charge someone. And so on down the chart of criminal charges.
The lowest-level busts make up the vast majority of all seizures. It makes sense that officers would encounter users far more often than dealers. What doesn't add up is the narrative: that forfeitures are essential to destroying drug cartels. All it's really doing is depriving people of property and disproportionately punishing the demand side of the drug problem.
Serious crimes barely register. There are thousands of drug-related forfeitures -- with more than 80% of those covering bare minimum possession. The list of serious crimes -- ranging from grand larceny to child molestation to home invasion -- makes up only 95 of the state's ~6,000 seizures. The only other big chunk (984 forfeitures) is related to prostitution charges, showing the state is willing to take away vehicles for engaging in consensual sexual transactions.
This abuse of a law enforcement tool has gotten the county sued. Multiple citizens are seeking to have the program found unconstitutional. Two of the plaintiffs listed in this story by the Detroit News have waited years for a hearing on seized vehicles, one of which is a 1998 Toyota Avalon, to give you some idea what kind of prime drug-dealing vehicles the county targets.
The small bright spot in all this is there's a bill seeking to institute a conviction requirement for forfeitures. If state agencies have to be able to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, they'll be far less likely to engage in specious seizures based on little more than the agency's desire to have more money/stuff. Unfortunately, the bill appears to be waiting for its Senate counterpart to arrive and it's been waiting almost six months at this point.
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