Property seizures a concern

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LANSING — Some lawmakers want to require police departments to charge suspects with a crime before seizing property.

Even though the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, Dan Korobkin, a staff attorney at the American Civil Libertities Union of Michigan, said seizures of property are a big problem in the state.

“People who aren’t committing or being charged with a crime are having their property taken away,” Korobkin said. “It flips the saying, ‘Innocent until proven guilty.’”

The ACLU sued the Detroit Police Department for a 2008 raid on the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit. The police suspected the gallery of serving alcohol without a permit.

That incident sparks legislative interest.

Police seized 40 legally parked cars belonging to some of the 100 people charged with loitering.

Those whose cars were seized had to pay fines of about $1,000, to retrieve them, according to the ACLU, although all criminal charges were dismissed.

Korobkin said that is a common practice, not just in Detroit but all around the state and country.

A person whose property is seized by the police must prove his or her innocence, even if not charged with a crime.

State Police Sgt. Chris Hawkins said law enforcement agencies are following current law, and legislators should take that into consideration.

“Legislation shouldn’t try to hinder all the good work agencies do. Legislators need to know that in some cases, property being seized is drug money and legislation would make agencies give drug money away,” Hawkins said.

Grand Rapids Police Lt. Ralph Mason said in most cases property is seized during an investigation and officers have to show that a driver used the car to transport drugs or used drug money to buy the vehicle.

However, the ACLU’s Korobkin said police agencies often are able to keep seized property.

“This creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement agencies,” Korobkin said.

Legislation being proposed would require agencies to give back property if someone isn’t charged.

Sen. Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit, who is drafting the bill, said the current law isn’t fair to the people.

It’s unfair to mistakenly charge someone with a crime and order that person to pay agencies to get back their property, Hunter said.

“I should have the right to my property,” Hunter said.

Hunter said he will work with law enforcement agencies and interest groups to tighten its language.

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