High court to look at police seizures E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

As cuts to law enforcement have become increasingly popular with state and local legislators looking to get out from under monster budget deficits, the practice of seizing monies and properties suspected in crimes has increased dramatically. Law enforcement officials say that as the result of declining tax revenues and increasing deficits, the seized money and property now play a crucial role in funding basic police services. But there is a growing chorus made up of individuals that question the practice and legal challenges to police seizures are on the rise.

Local law enforcement agencies have been raising millions of badly needed dollars by seizing private property suspected in crimes. The problem, critics contend, is that those seizures sometimes take place in the absence of any criminal charges being filed and sometimes even when authorities admit no offense was committed.

According to an article in the Detroit News by George Hunter and Doug Guthrie, the money raised by confiscating goods in Metro Detroit soared more than 50 percent to at least $20.62 million from 2003 to 2007, according to the paper's analysis of records from 58 law enforcement agencies. In some communities, amounts raised went from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions. "It's like legalized stealing," Jacque Sutton told the News. He's a 21-year-old college student from Mount Clemens whose 1989 Mustang was seized by Detroit police raiding a party. Charges against him and more than 100 others were dropped, but he still paid more than $1,000 to get the car back.

"According to the law, I did nothing wrong but they're allowed to take my property anyway. It doesn't make sense." While courts have generally backed the government's right to take property involved in crimes (police seizures are also known as forfeitures), the issue is a growing source of friction in Michigan, especially as law enforcement agencies struggle to get funding. "Police departments right now are looking for ways to generate revenue, and forfeiture is a way to offset the costs of doing business," said Sgt. Dave Schreiner, who runs Canton Township's forfeiture unit, which raised $343,699 in 2008.

"You'll find that departments are doing more forfeitures than they used to because they've got to - they're running out of money and they've got to find it somewhere," he told the Detroit News. For police brass, the increase in seizures represents nothing more than better and more aggressive police work. "We're trying to fight crime," Police Chief Mike Pachla of Roseville told the News. In Roseville, the money raised from forfeitures has jumped more than tenfold in five years, from $33,890 to $393,014.

"We would be just as aggressive even if there wasn't any money involved." Roseville had among the most dramatic increases over the five-year period examined by the News. But other agencies also more than doubled their seizures, including Novi, Trenton, Farmington Hills, Southfield, the Michigan State Police, Shelby Township, Livonia, Warren and Romulus. The increased reliance on seized property to fund police operations amounts to a trade-off for law enforcement. The tough economy may be prompting law enforcement agencies to use an "entrepreneurial spirit," but that makes for bad public relations, said Tom Hendrickson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Just recently the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of six people from Chicago who sought prompt hearings on the seizure of their cars and money. A ruling, expected to be confined to procedural grounds, is due by the end of the Supreme Court's term in June and isn't expected to change law on property forfeiture. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office often makes people pay to get their seized property back without filing any charges.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined comment, but issued a written statement explaining that she wants to get criminals off the street,and that the law allows her office to seize property without filing charges. Canton's Sgt. Schreiner insisted forfeiture laws should be wielded responsibly. "There's a right way and a wrong way to do forfeitures," he told the News. "First of all, you should always file charges; if you don't have a case against someone, you shouldn't seize their property.

"But even when there is a crime, the law should be used as it was intended. If we seize a computer that was used to commit identity fraud, that's a good thing. But if Joe Citizen complains that he was arrested for a small amount of drugs, and we took his refrigerator and silverware, then I think he has a valid complaint." Many of the increases in forfeitures obtained by local police agencies aren't the result of "money hunting," officials say.

But they also admit their efforts to take property have increased just to make ends meet When Romulus, Michigan saw a 118 percent jump in forfeiture revenues from 2003-07, the increase was not the result of more criminal activity, Chief Michael St. Andre told the News.

"It's because our forfeiture efforts have ramped up in the past few years," he said. "It is nice when we're able to purchase things we need from arrests. I don't have to go to the city and ask for things like bulletproof vests or computers."

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