The Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit libertarian law firm, filed a federal, class-action lawsuit alleging Wayne County’s vehicle seizure practices are unconstitutional.
The lawsuit argues the practices violate the Fourth Amendment protecting unreasonable search and seizure, the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines and fees, and due process under the federal Constitution.
“The county’s policies and practices are not calculated to get at the truth; they are calculated to ensure that forfeiture activity benefits the county financially,” the lawsuit states.
Senior IJ Attorney Wesley Hottot told The Center Square that the county seized peoples’ cars based on allegations that someone else had committed a crime nearby.
“Things have gotten so out of control in Wayne County that police are seizing people’s cars based on one officer’s subjective determination that the car was close to someone else’s crime,” Hottot said.
For example, Robert Reeves’ 1991 Camaro, cell phones, and $2,280 in cash were seized by Michigan State Police on July 26, 2019, because someone he worked with allegedly committed a crime.
Reeves, hired to clear debris from a lot, was questioned by police during his drive home about a skid steer – a small, motorized tractor – provided by his contractor, which was allegedly stolen.
Reeves said he knew nothing about the alleged theft and wasn’t arrested. His Camaro is still impounded, a vehicle in which he had invested more than $9,000 so he could sell it to start a plowing business.
The Wayne County Sheriff’s department also seized Melisa Ingram’s 2017 Ford Fusion twice within seven months.
Ingram lent her car to her then-boyfriend on Nov. 20, 2018, so he could look for a job.
The vehicle was pulled over and seized when he slowed in an area known for prostitution, ostensibly without Ingram’s knowledge.
Ingram paid $1,355 to retrieve her car, which was seized again on June 17, 2019, after lending it to the same boyfriend, who was pulled over by the same officers after leaving a barbeque, the lawsuit says. Police alleged the house hosting the barbeque was connected to drugs or prostitution.
No one was arrested.
She would have had to pay $1,800, plus towing and storing fees to retrieve her car.
Ingram, 50, couldn’t afford the fees, so she declared personal bankruptcy, and now uses the bus to commute to work and night classes to earn her Bachelor’s degree.
“My life has been turned upside down,” Ingram said at a Wednesday news conference.
Hottot said Detroit’s forfeiture program victimized her.
“Innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock American value, and yet, under Detroit’s civil forfeiture program innocence is irrelevant,” Hottot said. “It is clearly unconstitutional to force one person to pay for another person’s crime.”
Hottot said the forfeiture program is more similar to having a car stolen and being charged ransom for its return than a justice system. He said the policy is designed to generate revenue, not to protect public safety, because civil forfeiture laws incentivize police and prosecutors to take property from people, and they keep 100 percent of the proceeds.
There’s no distinction between those charged with heinous crimes who are actually arrested and have property seized, Hottot said, and those who have done nothing wrong; both have to pay $900 for the first vehicle seizure.
The lawsuit says that in two years, Wayne County has seized at least 2,600 cars and collected a minimum of $1.2 million in revenue, citing a Michigan Capitol Confidential article.