GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - Is it possible to earn $4,300 selling tomatoes at the Farmer's Market?
The Metropolitan Enforcement Team didn't think so – not in January.
But that's the story a suspected drug dealer gave when he was arrested for selling an undercover officer oxycontin and clonazepam.
The cash was seized under Michigan's Asset Forfeiture Law. The Kent County Prosecutor's Office this year has filed at least 15 civil forfeiture claims against property it says was either used to promote drug trafficking or represents the ill-gotten gains of trafficking.
"You get a lot of vehicles, you get a lot of money and now people use iPhones and computers,'' said Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Greg Boer. "We've also been getting a lot of marijuana growing equipment.''
Under Michigan's forfeiture statute, police can seize cash and assets without an arrest or a conviction.
Those who have property seized have 20 days to post an interim bond – usually between $250 and $500, to contest the seizure. If a bond is not posted within 20 days, the property automatically becomes property of the seizing police agency.
When a bond is posted, the prosecutor's office – acting on behalf of the seizing police agency, will determine if it's worth pursuing.
"If it doesn't meet the statutory requirements, we'll return the property right there,'' Boer said. "If we feel it does meet the criteria we proceed one of two ways: We reach an out-of-court settlement or we try the case.''
The Kent County Prosecutor's Office handles about 30 forfeiture cases a year; of those, between 15 and 20 percent are contested.
Among contested cases this year is the seizure of an estimated $15,000 worth of property taken from a Belmont man whose house was raided by the Metropolitan Enforcement Team in May.
Greg Hobart was a licensed medical marijuana grower, but police say he exceeded the number of plants he was legally able to grow. They carted off more than 60 marijuana plants, but didn't stop there. Hobart's wood-working equipment was also fair game.
"I had two generators, I had a table saw that was mine, a table saw that belonged to my son, a miter saw that belonged to my son on a stand. My circular saw, my router,'' Hobart said.
More than two months after the raid, Hobart was charged with maintaining a drug house and distributing marijuana. The case is pending in Kent County Circuit Court.
The former Rockford wrestling coach is flummoxed as to why property that had nothing to do with marijuana growing was loaded into the back of a white pickup truck and hauled away.
"Well I don't think they should be able to seize stuff that has nothing to do with what they're after,'' Hobart said. "They took a power washer for crying out loud. You can't wash plants with a 3800 psi power washer - not if you want them to live.''
Michigan State Police Lt. Steven Rau disagrees. Not only did Hobart far exceed the number of plants he was able to grow his medical marijuana license, all of the items seized fell within the guidelines of the forfeiture act - including the power washer.
"We feel bases on our investigation that they were used to enhance his marijuana grow operation,'' Rau said. "Mr. Hobart wasn't in compliance with the medical marijuana act and you lose all rights associated with the medical marijuana act when you're in violation of the act,'' he said.
State and federal civil forfeiture statutes allow for seizures without an arrest or conviction. But one Michigan lawmaker wants to see that changed.
An Ann Arbor democrat introduced legislation in January that would prevent property from being seized unless there is a conviction. The Michigan legislature has yet to take action on measure.
Boer says even if lawmakers pass restrictions, he doubts it will have much impact on the 30 or so cases he handles each year.
"Most of the cases we file involve people who do ultimately get convicted, so that would not have a significant change from my perspective,'' Boer said. "When we deal with people that don't have criminal charges, that's when they're usually acting as a stooge for someone who does have criminal charges.''
State and federal forfeiture laws were enacted as part of the national War on Drugs – a way to remove the profits from drug trafficking. It helps pay for training, drug-sniffing dogs and undercover informants. Lights used to grow pot and scales used to weigh cocaine go to elementary schools. More than $26 million in assets were seized statewide in 2012, including 23 houses.
But it's also ripe for abuse. That was the case in Minnesota, where a now-defunct drug task force had to pay out $840,000 in settlements to victims who had property illegally seized. Minnesota lawmakers this year passed a forfeiture reform bill that bars property seizures without a criminal conviction. It takes effect Aug. 1.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan last year took in more than $8 million in seized assets. Its inventory this year includes a 2009 Jaguar and a house on Stafford Avenue SW.
"The reason that we do have asset forfeitures in connection with drug cases is usually there's not any other form of restitution or fines and we do want to take the financial incentive and motive out of crime as much as possible, '' U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles said. "Identifying assets is one of the big challenges too.''