National group throws weight behind effort to fix Michigan civil asset forfeiture laws

National group throws weight behind effort to fix Michigan civil asset forfeiture laws

Darlene Hellenberg was on the dance floor when masked gunmen stormed the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, ordering her and other patrons to the ground.

“What’s going to happen to me? And where am I going to end up when this is all over?” she said this week, recalling the panicked thoughts that raced through her head back in 2008.

“I don’t even think at that point I knew it was police. I had no idea what was happening.”

Hellenberg was one of 130 people detained, searched and charged with loitering after non-uniformed police officers raided the art space that night. She was one of 44 people who had their cars impounded.

Her alleged crime? The 26-year-old library assistant was at “Funk Night,” a monthly dance party where, unbeknownst to her, organizers were serving alcohol without a liquor license and after 2 a.m.

“It didn’t even occur to me that I was in a place where I was doing anything wrong, other than hanging out and dancing,” said Hellenberg, who was there to see her DJ friend spin records.

The loitering charge was later dismissed, but it took Hellenberg 10 months to win back her car. Police originally said she could pay $900, plus towing and storage fees, to get it out of lockup. She eventually paid $400 and agreed to do some community service.

Seven years later, the now-infamous “CAID raid” remains a startling example of abuse under Michigan’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to seize property linked to an alleged crime even if the owner is never charged or convicted.

The raid, and other stories like it, have inspired a growing movement to reform those laws, an effort that is about to ramp up in Michigan over the next several months as the state Senate considers a package already approved by the House.