Jacque Sutton didn’t commit any crime but police impounded his 1989 Mustang GT and charged him $900 to get it back.
His offense was attending a party in 2009 at an art gallery in Detroit that didn't have a permit to hold an event with dancing and DJs. Police raided the place and gave everyone tickets for illegal occupation, which were later waived. But Sutton's car was seized and he couldn't get his property back until he paid the money as a result of Michigan's asset forfeiture law.
He's not alone. Since 2001, Michigan agencies have seized at least $250 million worth of property and money from citizens. While much of what's seized comes from criminals, a significant amount of assets and a number of cases involve people like Sutton.
No Conviction, No Forfeiture
A newly introduced bill would prevent many of those situations. House Bill 5213 , sponsored by Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) would prohibit civil asset forfeiture in Michigan unless a person is convicted of a crime.
"I do agree with [the bill]," Sutton said. "This was basically a money grab for the city."
Irwin said forfeiture, which is a way for the government to seize or confiscate assets, has "spun out of control."
"Asset forfeiture was sold as a needed tool for law enforcement to attack drug kingpins and gang leaders," Irwin said. "[But] too often, law enforcement uses the current asset forfeiture law to take tens of millions of dollars every year, mostly from low-level users and small-time dealers. We need to change how asset forfeiture works.
‘Insidious Incentives’ for Seizures
“By requiring a person be convicted of a crime before their seized property is subject to forfeiture, we will stop the worst abuses and curtail the insidious incentives that lead some law enforcement to short-circuit due process and the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty."
According to the Michigan State Police, the primary goal of asset forfeiture is "to deter and punish drug criminals by taking away the goods, property, and money obtained through illegal activity." But, as a report  from Michigan State Police Director Kriste Etue notes, it can also serve as an "important supplement" to police funding.
"Police departments right now are looking for ways to generate revenue, and forfeiture is a way to offset the costs of doing business," Sgt. Dave Schreiner, who runs Canton Township's forfeiture unit, told The Detroit News  in 2009. "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."
This suggests that law enforcement agencies have an incentive to seize money and property to enhance their budgets.
‘Streamlined’ Assault on Due Process
In Michigan, if cash or property is valued at more than $50,000 a court proceeding is required for it to be seized. But if the amount is less than that, the seizing can be "streamlined" and taken administratively. Eighty-nine percent of assets were taken this way in 2012.
A 2011 law changed how agencies could use funds. Previously, money was restricted to drug law enforcement. Now, the funds can be used for all law enforcement activities and can also be provided to nonprofit agencies; 3 percent was spent that way in 2011.
Law enforcement agencies seized at least $26.5 million in cash and assets in 2012 with 60 percent coming from the state police and local agencies. These funds are used for equipment, crime programs and matching grants to obtain more federal money.
Michigan has weak confiscation laws, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that represents people whose money and property have been seized despite them not having committed a crime. The state received a "D-" for its forfeiture laws, according to an IJ study  published in 2010.
Many of the high-profile forfeiture cases come as a result of federal agency actions, and several have occurred in Michigan.
Small Bank Deposits, Big Threat
Last November, the government seized $135,000 from the Cheung family restaurant. Though no criminal charges were filed, the feds went after them for making bank deposits under $10,000. Banks must notify the