Matthew Needham

The Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties law firm, have come to the defense of Terry Dehko and Sandy Thomas. The Institute will assist them in two lawsuits related to the case. In the first, Dehko and Thomas will fight the forfeiture of their assets by demonstrating that their case deposits were for the purpose of sound business practices, rather than the evasion of money laundering laws. In the second, they are fighting the government’s ability to use civil forfeiture. A victory could mean protections for property rights of small-business owners all across the country.

Civil forfeiture is on the rise throughout the United States. According to the Institute for Justice, the Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund held $93.7 million of seized assets in 1986. In 2008, that fund was greater than $1 billion.

In a recent profile of the case inthe Economist, Thomas stated that prosecutors offered her and Dehko 20% of their seized assets in a plea bargain, with the government to keep the remaining 80%. Thomas and Dehko declined, because “if [they] settle, it looks like [they’re] guilty of something, which [they’re] not.”

Michigan’s civil forfeiture laws are particularly heinous. In their 2010 report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” the Institute for Justice gave Michigan a “D-” grade for their forfeiture laws. The Institute found the standard of evidence used in Michigan for forfeiture cases “is significantly lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard required to actually convict someone of criminal activity.” Furthermore, assets seized through civil forfeiture go towards “law enforcement efforts, creating an incentive to pursue forfeiture more vigorously than combating other criminal activity.” Between 2001 and 2008, more than $149 million were seized through this process in Michigan.

In their 2010 report, the Institute for Justice identifies a few avenues for reform. Property owners subject to civil forfeiture should have access to a prompt trial before a judge. They should also be presumed innocent until proven guilty. To prevent conflicts of interest, seized assets should be separated from the budgets of law enforcement.

These arbitrary seizures of private property must be stopped. Civil forfeiture as it exists today has no place in the American legal system, where citizens are innocent until proven guilty and granted due process to prove their innocence. People subject to civil forfeiture are powerless against law enforcement agencies who gain from these takings. Until civil forfeiture is abolished or radically reformed, more innocent Americans will face nightmares similar to that of Terry Dehko and Sandy Thomas.

Matthew Needham

Matthew Needham is a Young Voices Advocate. He has been published in the Michigan Capitol Confidential and interviewed by The State News and The 405 Radio. He studies political theory at Michigan State University.