Police target licensed marijuana growers with civil forfeiture
Posted by Amy Miller Friday, December 5, 2014 at 1:20pm
Medical marijuana providers in Michigan are losing their assets–and their livelihoods.
Back in August, the City of Philadelphia made headlines after their police department was busted using asset forfeiture procedures to pad city coffers. Now, officers in Michigan are under fire for targeting private citizens for forfeiture—without ever accusing those people of a crime.
Southwest Michigan residents and medical marijuana license holders Wally Kowalski and Thomas Williams both had their property ransacked and assets seized by officers over a year ago; neither men have been charged with a crime, but the police departments refuse to return their cash or belongings.
Kowalski has a license to grow and distribute medical pot to several low-income people who depend on the drug. He grows the plants in a garden area enclosed by a barbed wire fence.
But whether or not Kowalski had a legal right to grow mattered little to the state police, who seized his power generator—even though it had nothing to do with his marijuana plants—and some expensive equipment. They also destroyed the plants.
The police froze his accounts, rendering him unable to make payments on his student loans or other bills. And he could no longer complete the immigration process for his wife, a resident of Africa.
Thomas Williams, another southwest Michigan resident, suffered a similar ordeal. His medical marijuana activities prompted police to ransack his property while they left him handcuffed for 10 hours. The cops took his car, phone, TV, and cash. Afterward, he had no means of getting to the grocery store or even contacting another human being for days. Like Kowalski, he hasn’t been charged with a crime.
Fun fact: police officers ransacked Kowalski’s house for what we can only assume is evidence of his participation in a high-power midwestern drug cartel—but they didn’t confiscate his marijuana license.
It may seem odd that these men wish the police would just go ahead and charge them with something, anything, but as a practical matter it makes sense. Asset forfeiture hearings are largely controlled by prosecutors (whose offices benefit from the auctioning of seized property); if charged, Kowalski and Williams would be able to defend themselves in a court of law. As it stands, their livelihoods remain in limbo and their property remains a hostage.
Michigan Capitol Confidential explains how asset forfeiture became a serious problem in Michigan:
Traditionally in Michigan, criminal fines were allocated to libraries, in part to avoid creating incentives that skew law enforcement more toward generating revenue than public safety. Asset forfeiture, however, is different. As a 2010 report from the Institute for Justice explained, “Law enforcement receives all proceeds of civil forfeiture to enhance law enforcement efforts, creating an incentive to pursue forfeiture more vigorously than combating other criminal activity.”
Those incentives contributed to more than $250 million in total forfeiture revenue being collected in Michigan since 2000. Reports from law enforcement agencies here show they collected over $20 million last year.
This has contributed to asset forfeiture becoming a revenue source for law enforcement agencies and big business in Michigan. Maj. Neill Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran who led a drug enforcement team for the state police in Maryland, called the practice “extortion.”
“Today we’re taking property from people across this country and not charging them with crimes because we have no evidence on them that they are committing crimes,” said Franklin, who now serves as the executive director of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).
It’s not just a Michigan problem. Earlier this month, the New York Times exposed a disturbing trend of using police department “wish lists” to determine what sort of assets should be seized from suspected criminals. During seminars designed to train officers about forfeiture, attendees were instructed to focus on big screen TVs, cash, and nice cars; items like jewelry are computers are apparently too difficult to get rid of, according to instructors.
Note that in some states, officers are allowed to put seized items to personal use, which could explain why TVs and cars are seized, but marijuana licenses and other professional licenses are left alone. What we have here is policing for profit, and it might just be the single biggest threat to personal property rights in America.
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