Each year, Michigan police and prosecutors use civil forfeiture to take hundreds of cars from residents of Detroit and surrounding Wayne County. Law enforcement routinely seizes these vehicles on the thinnest of pretenses, such as a car’s presence in a neighborhood known for prostitution. Once cars are seized, prosecutors hold them ransom, demanding $1,000 or more for a car’s return. All too often, innocent people find themselves trapped in this revenue-generating scheme.
That’s exactly what happened to Detroit resident Melisa Ingram. Melisa lent her car to her then-boyfriend when he lost his job. After police caught her now-former boyfriend leaving a house allegedly connected to prostitution, they seized Melisa’s car. Melisa wasn’t at the house or with the car, and nobody alleged that she had done anything wrong. Even so, she was on the hook for the hefty fees required to get her car back. Unable to pay the money the city demanded, Melisa permanently lost her car—a devastating loss that ultimately led her to declare bankruptcy.
Sadly, Melisa’s story is not unique. Robert Reeves is another Detroit native who lost his car despite never having been accused of a crime. Robert, a construction worker and auto repairman, found himself surrounded by police officers after meeting with a repeat customer. The officers informed Robert that the customer was accused of theft and, without any evidence connecting Robert to the alleged crime, seized his 1991 Chevy Camaro and all the cash in his wallet. He called the county over 100 times asking what could be done to get his car and money back—he was uniformly told there was nothing to do but wait.
Read more about IJ’s case here.
Abuses against innocent car owners like Melisa and Robert have a long history in Detroit. Almost 25 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided an infamous forfeiture case called Bennis v. Michigan. In that case, law enforcement used civil forfeiture to take the Bennis family car after finding Mr. Bennis in the car with a prostitute. Although his wife, Tina Bennis, knew nothing of her husband’s actions and had nothing to do with his crime, the Supreme Court ruled that forfeiture of her half-interest in the car did not violate her 14th Amendment due process rights. The Bennis decision emboldened law enforcement to take thousands of cars from innocent owners in the ensuing decades.
Now Melisa and Robert are joining with IJ to take up the fight that Tina Bennis valiantly began. The rampant forfeiture activity in Wayne County since the Bennis decision has devastated the community, but developments in the law—set in motion by IJ—have created a new opportunity for the Supreme Court to reconsider Bennis and secure greater protection against the county’s forfeiture machine. That’s why we filed a class action lawsuit in February to finally put an end to unconstitutional vehicle seizures in Detroit—and why we will keep fighting until property owners in Wayne County and around the country are safe from this abuse.
Wesley Hottot is an IJ senior attorney.