6th Circuit Unanimously Rules Against Detroit Forfeiture Program

Wesley Hottot
Wesley Hottot
 ·  November 1, 2023

The big battles are the ones worth fighting.

That principle proved true again recently when the 6th Circuit ruled unanimously that Wayne County, Michigan, violated the rights of Detroiters by failing to offer court hearings within two weeks of their vehicles being seized for forfeiture.

It was a tremendous and timely victory in IJ’s sprawling litigation aimed at reining in one of the most abusive civil forfeiture programs in the country.

The case began in February 2020, with the filing of a class action lawsuit in federal court. The county responded to our lawsuit in the worst way imaginable: It targeted our clients, aggressively seeking the forfeiture of Melisa Ingram’s and Stephanie Wilson’s cars in state court and baselessly charging Robert Reeves with a crime—all in a cynical effort to defeat federal court jurisdiction.

Never one to back down, IJ took these unexpected challenges head on. We guided Melisa through the process of releasing her car to a creditor whose interest in contesting forfeiture the government would take more seriously. We persuaded the state trial court to order the immediate return of Stephanie’s car—and when the county appealed, we took her case to the Michigan Supreme Court, which will hear argument sometime next year. We also twice defeated criminal charges against Robert, with judges agreeing the charges were baseless. And we have since filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the prosecutors who retaliated against him.

Most significantly, IJ prevailed against the county’s last-ditch attempt to have our case thrown out of federal court. Wayne County asked the 6th Circuit to use an extraordinary process known as interlocutory appeal to weigh in on one of our arguments—that Detroiters have a procedural due process right to a hearing before a neutral judge soon after a car seizure. The 6th Circuit instead ruled for IJ, holding that the county’s routine delays of six months or more violate the Constitution.

The three-judge panel unanimously held that “Wayne County was required to provide an interim hearing within two weeks to test the probable validity of the deprivation,” and it criticized the county for seizing our clients’ cars not for any health or safety purpose but “in order to obtain proceeds from fees.” 

“Does this sound like a legitimate way of cleaning up Wayne County?” wrote Judge Amul Thapar in a concurring opinion. “Or does it sound like a money-making scheme that preys on those least able to fight it? To ask the question is to answer it.” 

Thapar’s concurrence is aimed at the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who are currently considering the identical question of when car owners are entitled to a hearing in Culley v. Marshall. The 6th Circuit’s ruling—and IJ’s amicus brief in Culley—stand to influence the national debate surrounding civil forfeiture schemes. 

Meanwhile, we are pressing forward in a dozen other forfeiture cases—including our latest challenge against the FBI—with the potential to restore vital constitutional protections for property owners.

Important litigation takes time. But with patience and persistence, IJ and our clients consistently find ourselves at the center of the most important battles.

Wesley Hottot is an IJ senior attorney.

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