Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
As a police officer in Bath Township during the late 80s and until 1994, I was part of a process called Civil Asset Forfeiture. This process was intended to take away the money and property of drug dealers. As the property officer, I deposited thousands of dollars our officers took from people. I later sold at auction the vehicles those dollars were found in. In looking back I am mightily ashamed of what I did. Let me tell you why.
In about 80% of the cases no drugs were ever found in the vehicles and the owners of the money were never charged with a crime. Being in possession of 900 or 1200 or 2,000 dollars in cash gave our officers “probable cause” to believe the owners were drug dealers and the money came from drug sales. No doubt some were drug dealers. No doubt some were not. I was part of the process which did take money from law-abiding citizens.
“Those were the Wild Wild West days of forfeiture” a Mid-Michigan prosecutor remarked recently. “Officers are supposed to be able to link the cash to drugs.” he added. However, if the case never goes to court, the officers never have to prove anything. And that is what happened time after time. Persons who have 1400 dollars taken, discover a lawyer’s fee could easily be the amount of money seized. Even if they won in court, the best they could do is break even. Civil trials take from 6 to 12 months to be heard. The seized vehicles are often worth only 2 or 3 thousand dollars. No Mercedes or BMWs were ever seized by my department.
Unfortunately, there have been no substantive changes in state law. Federal law has been changed. There were so many abuses that even the Republicans passed a bill to require that any property seized had to be found in proximity to illegal drugs. Michigan police officers are only restricted by their department’s internal guidelines, if they have any. This huge cash cow for police departments continues to influence what officers do on the street. Can you blame them? Prosecutors like the law because they collect 10% of the money seized. Does the smell of money affect a prosecutor’s decision? You know the answer.
I don’t have the personal resources to give back the money we took. Nor do I know who were the honest citizens who happened to carry a significant amount of cash the day they were stopped. I only can say I am very sorry from the bottom of my heart for my role in the taking of your property. I am working to end the prohibition of drugs which caused this nightmare in the first place. Please forgive me.
Howard J. Wooldridge
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition…www.leap.cc