Jaimie Cavanaugh
Jaimie Cavanaugh
 ·  July 23, 2021

In February 2020, IJ sued Wayne County, home to Detroit, to end its decadeslong pattern of taking cars and holding them ransom for $1,000 or more. Although IJ filed this lawsuit in federal court, behind the scenes, the county has forced IJ to battle in state court to protect our clients’ rights.  

Liberty & Law readers may recall that Robert Reeves’ car was seized when law enforcement alleged his acquaintance tried to sell stolen construction equipment. That was bad enough. But when Wayne County learned Robert had become a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, it charged Robert criminally to complicate the federal proceedings. These charges were baseless, and IJ was sure they would fail. We prevailed in February 2021, when a judge ruled the county charged Robert without probable cause.

IJ and Robert celebrated, and the story should have ended there. But the county, trying to justify its bad actions, refiled criminal charges against Robert. It is now arguing that a prosecutor’s mistake—not Robert’s innocence—led to the court’s dismissal of the original charges. That means that, rather than being able to request the return of his vehicle, Robert was back in court fighting more bogus charges in July. And the county’s dirty tactics aren’t limited to Robert. IJ client Stephanie Wilson’s car was seized nearly two years ago, even though police found no evidence of wrongdoing. The county kept the car locked up for months because Stephanie refused to pay thousands of dollars for its return.

Stephanie’s hopes were lifted when, in April, a judge agreed there was no evidence of wrongdoing and ordered the county to return the car “immediately.” But the following week, when Stephanie went to pick up her Saturn Ion, the private tow yard working with the county would not cooperate. Instead—acting on instruction from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office—the tow yard said it was not authorized to release the vehicle. Stephanie spent hours at the tow yard, but even a stern call from the judge’s chambers could not persuade the tow yard to comply without the green light from the prosecutor. After exhausting all her options, Stephanie left without her car. 

IJ’s team escalated our efforts on her behalf, asking the court to enforce its order. At a hearing a few days later, the judge was visibly upset that the prosecutor’s office had obstructed the release of Stephanie’s car. Again, he ordered its immediate release. That afternoon, after waiting 22 months, Stephanie retrieved her car from the tow yard. 

Stephanie’s and Robert’s cases show just how far prosecutors will go to punish those who threaten their ability to seize and keep property through civil forfeiture. In both instances, the prosecutors heaped legal troubles on IJ clients to bully them into giving up their federal constitutional challenge. 

Luckily, Robert and Stephanie—like so many IJ clients—are not easily intimidated. They are committed to ending Wayne County’s unconstitutional forfeiture machine. And, whatever roadblocks arise, IJ will fight for them until that final victory.

Jaimie Cavanaugh is an IJ attorney.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.