Opinion writer

Let’s start with the good news. Michigan recently passed a reform bill.

Michigan is making law enforcement agencies report more details of their civil asset forfeiture programs and making it a little bit harder for them keep property they confiscate from residents.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed a seven-bill package that supporters see as a first step in a larger effort to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow police agencies to profit from seized property linked to a crime even if the owner is never charged or convicted.

The new laws will increase the burden of proof required to keep confiscated property from drug and public nuisance forfeiture cases, requiring “clear and convincing” evidence that it was related to a crime, up from “a preponderance” of the evidence under current law.

Law enforcement agencies will also be required to file annual reports with the state detailing their forfeiture cases and proceeds, which supporters hope will shed more light on a practice that can be difficult to track.

This is better than nothing, but it doesn’t go nearly as far as the reforms in, say, New Mexico, which require a conviction for police to keep a suspect’s assets. Michigan lets law enforcement agencies keep almost all the money in these cases, which creates huge incentive problems. Worse, the state makes copious use of the federal government’s equitable sharing program, which allows policy agencies to utilize federal law instead of state law when it’s more convenient. The new bills don’t appear to change either of those problems.

There has also been some talk of reform in Oklahoma, where a state senator has introduced a bill similar to the new law in New Mexico. That legislation inspired this amusingly deluded response from Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

“What we’re talking about is inviting some of the most violent people on the history of this planet,” he said on the Pat Campbell Show on KFAQ. “You see what goes on in Mexico, you see people’s bodies decapitated and hung from bridges. And if you want to bring that drug cartel ideology to Oklahoma, do exactly what Senator [Kyle] Loveless’ bill is suggesting,”

Eric Dalgleish, a major in the Tulsa Police Department, also got in on the act.

“What it will do is enhance the drug trafficking organizations — that’s who’s supporting his bill is the drug trafficking organizations,” he said. “They are politically savvy. They are political activists. If you think they’re not watching this and deciding what state to set up business in, we’re being naive and we’re being ignorant.”

I don’t think Dalgleish and Kunzweiler fully understand how illegal cartels operate. It’s the “illegal” part that allows them to exist, allows them to get rich, and creates the violence they seem so certain is soon to be visited upon the Sooner state. If they really want to keep cartels out of Oklahoma, they should look at easing up on the drug war, not fighting efforts to mitigate some of its more unjust and harmful consequences.

Oklahoma, incidentally, has some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country. One prosecutor there was caught using forfeiture funds to pay off his student loans. Another used the law to live rent-free in a seized house, despite a judge’s order to sell it. He also used forfeiture funds to pay his utility bills. No wonder they’re so protective of the policy. A report by Oklahoma Watch this year found several counties where forfeiture property wasn’t inventoried, or otherwise was missing or unaccounted for. In 2013, a federal judge ordered yet another Oklahoma prosecutor to terminate the contract with a private company he had hired to illegally make traffic stops in search of possible money and property to seize. The company got a percentage of whatever they were able to successfully seize.

Finally, economist Martin Armstrong puts the extraordinary surge in the use of forfeiture into perspective:

Between 1989 and 2010, U.S. attorneys seized an estimated $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture cases. The growth rate during that time averaged +19.4% annually. In 2010 alone, the value of assets seized grew by +52.8% from 2009 and was six times greater than the total for 1989. Then by 2014, that number had ballooned to roughly $4.5 billion for the year, making this 35% of the entire number of assets collected from 1989 to 2010 in a single year. According to the FBI, the total amount of goods stolen by criminals in 2014 burglary offenses suffered an estimated $3.9 billion in property losses. This means that the police are now taking more assets than the criminals.

Emphasis added.