From 2015 to 2019, in response to complaints that greedy cops were indiscriminately grabbing property they claimed was connected to criminal activity, Michigan legislators repeatedly amended the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. This year they partly reversed those reforms, making it easier to confiscate travelers’ cash in the name of cracking down on drug trafficking.
Michigan previously required a criminal conviction prior to completion of forfeitures involving cash or other property worth $50,000 or less. A pair of bills that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law on May 26 lowered that ceiling to $20,000 for assets seized at airports. “Drug trafficking will not be tolerated in Michigan,” declared state Rep. Graham Filler (R–DeWitt), who sponsored one of the bills. “The men and women who keep our airports secure need to have the proper authority to keep drugs and drug money out of our state—and this reform gives them the tools they need.” Rep. Alex Garza (D–Taylor) claimed his related bill made Michigan “a safer place,” because “drug traffickers will now think twice before trying to profit off the lives of our residents.”
Whitmer, a Democrat, was equally enthusiastic. By removing barriers to forfeiture of property “seized in association with a drug crime,” she said, the two bills “empower airport authorities to crack down on drug crimes at airports.”
Far from being “a safer place” thanks to “this reform,” Michigan is now a more dangerous place for anyone who flies with large amounts of cash. Whitmer assures us there is no cause for alarm, because this money is “seized in association with a drug crime.” But that’s an allegation the government should have to prove, not a presumption that travelers should have to rebut after armed agents of the state have already robbed them.
Forfeiture affidavits routinely employ vague boilerplate that falls far short of establishing a criminal nexus. Michigan law enforcement agencies have a strong incentive to assume that money they come across is drug-related, because they generally get to keep 90 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures they initiate.
“Traveling with cash is not a crime,” notes Institute for Justice senior attorney Dan Alban, whose organization has represented many innocent people whose allegedly drug-tainted money was seized at airports. “People regularly fly with large amounts of cash for a wide variety of completely legitimate reasons related to their business or personal finances. Allowing authorities to take air travelers’ cash without a criminal conviction, simply because they have a large sum of money, is a blatant violation of their rights.”
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