For decades, residents of Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan have lived under constant threat of having their cars taken away and ransomed back to them for $1,000 or more—that is, if the car is ever recovered. The perpetrators are not criminals; they are police and prosecutors who, under Michigan law, use civil forfeiture to seize hundreds of cars each year.
Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture does not require the property owner to have committed a crime. Anyone’s vehicle can be seized based on one police officer’s suspicion that it was, in some way, connected to a crime. Even being near an alleged crime is enough. And anyone’s crime will do. The vehicle owner does not have to be under suspicion, even when he or she could have done nothing to prevent the crime from happening.
Wayne County routinely seizes vehicles on the thinnest of pretenses—such as a car’s presence in a neighborhood known for prostitution. Without arresting anyone, officers take the car on the spot, leaving its driver on the side of the road. Without bringing criminal charges, prosecutors then put the vehicle’s owner through a procedural gauntlet designed not to get at the truth, but to ensure payment to the county or forfeiture of the vehicle. The only realistic hope that an innocent owner has of retrieving his or her vehicle is to pay a “redemption fee” of at least $900, between $100 and $300 in towing fees, and a $15/day storage fee. (If a vehicle is seized a second time, the redemption fee doubles, and another $900 is added for each successive seizure). If the owner doesn’t pay, the property will be forfeited and sold, with the proceeds going to the county.
Detroiters Melisa Ingram and Robert Reeves know this threat all too well. Both lost their cars (and other personal property inside) when Wayne County seized them based on other people’s alleged misbehavior. In both cases, no one was arrested—including the alleged perpetrators. Yet, Wayne County seized Melisa and Robert’s vehicles, upending their lives, and has continued to hold them for months. Melisa was victimized by this program once before, when she was forced to pay $1,355 to get her car back after her boyfriend drove it into an area known by police officers for prostitution.
Now, Melisa and Robert have partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a major federal class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Wayne County’s forfeiture program. The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to enforce the federal constitutional right to due process and the rights to be free from unreasonable seizures and excessive fines.
Forfeiture in Detroit: A History of Abuse
More than 25 years ago, Wayne County seized a car co-owned by Tina Bennis and her husband. Mrs. Bennis was not charged with a crime or accused of any wrongdoing. In fact, prosecutors acknowledged that she had not committed any crime. Mrs. Bennis’s husband, however, had been convicted of gross indecency for an encounter with a prostitute that took place in the family vehicle. Mrs. Bennis obviously had not consented to, and was not even aware of, her husband’s illicit activities. But the County took the car through a process called civil forfeiture.
Through this process, the government takes property allegedly connected with criminal activity, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the property owner. Unlike criminal court, where a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, under civil forfeiture laws the standard of proof is significantly lower—a mere hunch is often enough to seize property—and the owner has the burden to prove his or her innocence. Carrying this burden is difficult, as the property owner lacks the procedural protections guaranteed in criminal court, including the right to an attorney when a person cannot afford one.
Because the vehicle had been used in a crime, Mrs. Bennis received no compensation for her half-interest in the car.
Mrs. Bennis challenged the forfeiture in court. She argued that punishment of innocent people violates the due process guarantee of the U.S. Constitution. In 1996, the case made its way before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a now infamous decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Mrs. Bennis. Citing the complex history of civil forfeiture, a divided Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect innocent property owners like Mrs. Bennis against forfeiture. 1
The County’s Seize-and-Ransom Policy
Emboldened by the Bennis decision, Wayne County law enforcement began taking cars from the guilty and the innocent alike. Just in the last two years, Wayne County has seized more than 2,600 cars and collected more than $1.2 million in revenue using civil forfeiture. Victims like Mrs. Bennis are now common. In 2017, for example, Wayne County took almost 400 cars without charging anyone with a crime. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office today has an entire unit dedicated to vehicle seizures.
Wayne County’s forfeiture system is not only unconstitutional, it is also secretive. Despite decades of forfeitures, many details about the system remain unclear. When the Institute for Justice submitted a request, under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, seeking more information about vehicle forfeitures, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office heavily redacted the records, rendering them unusable. That is why the Institute for Justice has filed a separate FOIA lawsuit seeking increased transparency in forfeiture in the Wayne County Circuit Court.
What we do know is that Wayne County’s forfeiture program is a well-oiled machine. The Sheriff’s Office and Prosecutor’s Office work hand-in-hand to seize and forfeit vehicles. There are two statutes that make this possible.
The first, Michigan’s Controlled Substances Act, also known as the “push off” law, authorizes seizure and forfeiture of vehicles suspected of being somehow connected to drug crime. 2 Although recent reforms added some protection for innocent property owners caught up in drug seizures, 3 the county continues to seize vehicles for push-off violations when a person is “loitering” in an area known for illegal drug activity.
Once officers take a car in a push-off seizure, the vehicle owner has just 17 days to file a claim to the property. Forfeiture is automatic when a vehicle owner does not find out about the forfeiture in time or if he or she is unable to act promptly to file a claim. Drivers are given a seizure form at the time of seizure that directs the property owner to the county’s Vehicle Seizure Unit. There, the Prosecutor’s Office offers a property owner a settlement to return their vehicle: $900 for a first offense, $1,800 for a second and $2,700 for a third. In addition, property owners must pay towing and storage fees, which can soar to over $600 just in the first month. If a property owner foregoes settlement and chooses to challenge the forfeiture, it can be months before he or she ever appears in front of a judge.
Wayne County also relies heavily on Michigan’s nuisance-abatement statute—the same law at issue in Bennis v. Michigan. 4 The law defines “nuisance” to include loitering in an area known for prostitution, with the intent to hire a prostitute. As with the push-off law, enforcement of the nuisance-abatement statute often turns on an individual’s misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Vehicle Seizure Unit offers the same settlement amounts set for push-off violations (again, in addition to towing and storage fees). Unlike the push-off law, however, there is no provision for innocent owners to get their car back under the nuisance-abatement statute. 5
Under either statute, car owners face an expensive, steep uphill battle to get their car back once it has been taken by Wayne County.
The two decades since the Bennis decision have illustrated the devastating impact of rampant forfeiture on the Wayne County community. This reality, coupled with new developments in the law, have created a ripe opportunity for a new battle against the county’s forfeiture machine.
The Innocent Are Not Spared
Melisa Ingram is a hardworking Detroit resident who, like Mrs. Bennis, found herself betrayed by her partner, and then betrayed by Wayne County’s forfeiture program. When Melisa’s then-boyfriend lost his job, she loaned him her 2017 Ford Fusion to get around. Unfortunately, Wayne County police officers promptly seized the car on the spot under the same law underlying the seizure of Mrs. Bennis’s car. No one thought that Melisa had done anything wrong, but she could not afford the hefty settlement required to get her car back. She permanently lost the car. As it is for many Wayne County residents, the loss of Melisa’s car was devastating. The forfeiture ultimately led her to declare bankruptcy.
Regrettably, Melisa’s story is all too common.
Robert Reeves, a father of five young children, works as a construction worker and auto repairman. In July 2019, Robert visited a job site with a man who sometimes hired him to help with construction projects. Having just looked at a car he was interested in buying, Robert had $2,200 in cash in his wallet. At the job site, Robert demonstrated to the man that he knew how to operate a skid steer loader and then drove to a nearby gas station. When he emerged from the gas station, his 1991 Chevy Camaro was surrounded by police officers. The officers informed Robert that the construction equipment the man had shown him was stolen from Home Depot. Robert assured the officers that he knew nothing about the alleged theft and had no reason to believe that the other man was connected to criminal activity, but it didn’t matter. The officers seized his car—which he had put $10,000 of work into—and his $2,200 in cash.
Now, Melisa and Robert are fighting back. They have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to challenge Wayne County’s forfeiture scheme in federal court. In a class action lawsuit, they assert that the county’s forfeiture system violates the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Detroit’s vehicle forfeiture scheme violates the United States Constitution in a variety of ways. This lawsuit asserts four categories of claims.
First, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires the government to provide a prompt post-seizure hearing upon taking an individual’s property. Wayne County does not offer property owners this essential opportunity to be heard—indeed, it can be months before a property owner has an opportunity to appear before a judge.
Second, forfeiture of an innocent person’s vehicle violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Though the United States Supreme Court rejected this claim in Bennis, there are important factual distinctions between that case and the situations of the plaintiffs here. In neither Melisa’s nor Robert’s case, for example, did the alleged wrongdoer have any ownership interest in the vehicle. Further, developments in the law in the past two decades have eroded the foundation underlying the Bennis decision, paving the way for the Supreme Court to reconsider that disastrous decision.
Third, forfeiture of the vehicles of innocent owners violates the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against excessive fines. Punishment of an innocent property owner for a wrong committed by another is always excessive. The Eighth Amendment protects innocent people like Melisa and Robert.
Finally, the lawsuit seeks damages and injunctive relief on behalf of Robert for the warrantless seizure of his vehicle and cash with no probable cause to believe that they were connected to a crime. Plaintiffs for whom probable cause to seize the vehicle existed initially will assert a similar claim alleging that the continued long-term seizure of their cause was unjustified and violated the Fourth Amendment. 6 No one in America should lose their property based on the conduct of someone else—especially when no one is arrested or even charged with a crime.
Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot and Attorneys Kirby Thomas West and Jaimie Cavanuagh represent Melisa Ingram and Robert Reeves. They are assisted by Barton Morris as local counsel.
The Institute for Justice
Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for private property rights. IJ has since litigated in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion to defend free speech, property rights, economic liberty and educational choice. IJ has successfully challenged unconstitutional forfeiture schemes in other cities. In 2018, IJ obtained a settlement in a class action challenge to Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine that resulted in a complete dismantling of the city’s unconstitutional forfeiture system. IJ also won a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ensuring that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies in civil forfeiture proceedings. 7
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