Annette Shattuck wasn't home when the masked men entered her house and ransacked it. But her 56-year-old mother was, clipping coupons and watching over Annette's four children under the age of 10, Shattuck recalled last week before the Michigan House of Representatives.
"After they breached my door, at gunpoint, with masks," she said, repeating what her family told her, "they proceeded to take every belonging in my house. And when I say every belonging, I mean every belonging." That included, she said, her husband's tools, the lawnmower and a bicycle. They took credit card statements, tax returns, and the public assistance card Shattuck used to help feed her family. They even took $90 worth of birthday money out of her daughter's "pink bedroom," as it's listed in a summary of seized property compiled by the police.
"My children's artwork was on the floor with boot-prints on it," she says, recalling what she saw when she returned home. She testified that they hung her lingerie from the ceiling fans. The men took her vehicles, which she said included the car seats for the smaller children.
The men who did this were officers of Michigan's St. Clair County Drug Task Force executing a search warrant on her home. Shattuck, you see, is a registered medical marijuana caregiver under Michigan's medical marijuana law. This allows her to grow a certain quantity of marijuana plants to distribute to a small number of medical marijuana patients.
The Task Force suspected she might be out of compliance, selling marijuana to people without a medical marijuana card. Shattuck initially faced six criminal charges related to marijuana possession and distribution, three of which have since been dismissed by a district court judge, according to court documents reviewed by The Washington Post. She is awaiting her day in court on the remaining charges.
St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon disputed elements of Shattuck's testimony in a phone interview, saying it was far less of a confrontation than Shattuck suggested in her testimony.
"She's a liar, plain and simple. That's all I can tell you," he said. He says that the task force did not hang lingerie from the ceiling fans or stomp food on the floor. The Shattucks, he said, are "trying to further their cause, which at the base of it is the legalization of marijuana in the state of Michigan."
The seizure of Shattuck's belongings offers a window into the unsettled world of civil forfeiture and drug laws at a time when both are facing increased challenges. A number of media investigations over the past year, including by The Washington Post, have raised questions about whether local authorities are appropriately seizing -- and keeping -- the property of people who are never convicted, or in some cases never even charged, with a crime. Meanwhile, civil forfeiture has remained an important anti-narcotics tool for local and federal authorities, who are facing a changing drug policy landscape across the country.
In an interview, Shattuck, who has described herself as a "soccer mom," and her lawyer Michael Komorn rejected the sheriff's criticism. "He's never called me a liar up until this point that I've been aware of, " she said. She stands by the testimony she gave to the Michigan House, and points to a district court transcript showing the judge harshly admonishing the prosecution for the wide net cast in seizing assets.
"Why would you keep several of the items that were stated here ... unless you just want to be nasty about it," Judge David Nicholson told the prosecuting attorney during a hearing. "I'm just saying that from a pure matter of acting like a decent human being, that those things that are not going to be necessary ought to be given back."
But the Shattucks say they haven't seen most of their belongings returned. Even if the charges against them are dropped completely, they'll still face a steep legal battle to get all their stuff, because it's been very difficult to get seized property back even when found to be innocent.
A debate over civil forfeiture
Just ask Ginnifer Hency.
Like Annette Shattuck, Hency is a self-described "soccer mom" and a registered medical marijuana caregiver. Her husband is a social worker. The Hency home was also raided last July by the same drug task force, according to Hency's testimony.
"They took everything," Hency testified before the Michigan House: the TVs, the kids' phones, ladders.
Hency was initially charged with two marijuana-related offenses. But the charges were recently dismissed by a judge, according to a district court document reviewed by The Post. She was elated. She drove to the county prosecutor's office to see about getting her belongings back.
But the county said they'd still be keeping all that: "The prosecutor came out to me and said, 'Well, I can still beat you in civil court,'" Hency told lawmakers last week.
In an interview, Michael Wendling, the St. Clair County prosecuting attorney, said the seizure of Hency's other belongings was justifiable under Michigan law. "When officers walk into a residence that has no income other than the sale of narcotics, and nothing of value except a brand new Xbox -- clearly those items might have been traded for drugs," he said.
Wendling also mentioned the ladder that Hency said was taken. "That ladder was used in the production of marijuana," he said. "The ladder to me was the same type of item as the scales, the grinder, the processing equipment the defendant was using. The ladder was just as much a part of this operation if she used it to reach the top of her plants."
In drug-related asset forfeiture cases, police have broad discretion in determining which goods to seize and which to leave behind.
Reconsidering the policy
The statutes in Michigan are particularly susceptible to abuse, as Reason's Jacob Sullum notes. Law enforcement agencies there get to keep 100 percent of asset forfeiture proceeds, creating a strong incentive to take first and ask questions later. Michigan's laws earned it a D-, the lowest possible score, on an Institute for Justice state asset forfeiture report card released in 2010.
The reform bills before Michigan would bump up the standard of evidence required to keep seized goods, provide stricter forfeiture reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies, and forbid seizing automobiles from people who possess less than one ounce of marijuana.
Donnellon, the St. Clair County sheriff, isn't necessarily opposed to these changes, but he's worried about the extra paperwork they may bring. "If we're forced to do detailed reporting on every single thing we do, it could essentially paralyze us with paperwork," he said in an interview.
And Wendling, the county prosector, disagrees that innocent people are having their goods taken away. "I would dispute that generality that people are losing their property and not being convicted," he said in an interview. "It's very rare."
A 2015 Detroit Free Press investigation found, however, that "many" asset forfeiture victims in Michigan were never charged with a crime. And a Washington Post investigation last year found that since 2001, Michigan police seizures from people who hadn't been charged with a crime totaled $47.7 million, $35.1 million of which went into the state's coffers.
Critics of civil forfeiture laws say that the reform measures don't go nearly far enough but that they're a good first step toward preventing abuses of the system.
The St. Clair County Drug Task Force, the group that raided the homes of Annette Shattuck and Ginnifer Hency, reports that in 2014 it seized well over $400,000 in cash and personal belongings from county residents.
"Had it not happened to me I never would have believed it could happen," Annette Shattuck said in an interview.