Class Action Lawsuit Seeks to Shutdown Detroit’s Unconstitutional Civil Forfeiture Program

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 5, 2020

For decades, Detroit police, sheriff’s deputies, and Wayne County prosecutors have systematically abused the constitutional rights of drivers by using a controversial tactic called civil forfeiture to seize and sell thousands of cars—oftentimes from completely innocent owners. Now, the Institute for Justice (IJ)—a nonprofit, public interest law firm—has partnered with a group of Detroit drivers to fight back and file a class action lawsuit in federal court seeking to end the controversial practice once and for all.

Melisa Ingram, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, knows the many abuses of Detroit’s system firsthand. Last summer her car was seized by Wayne County sheriff’s deputies after she lent it to her then-boyfriend so he could drive to a friend’s barbeque. Later that day, police pulled him over for slowing down in an area known for prostitution. Although he was never charged with a crime, police nevertheless seized Melisa’s 2017 Ford Fusion.

The following day, she went down to the courthouse to sort things out. There, she explained that the car wasn’t his and that she’d obviously would have never given him permission to pick up a prostitute, as the police alleged. But her pleas fell on deaf ears, because under Michigan’s forfeiture statute, an owner’s innocence is not a defense. The clerk explained that Melisa’s only option was to pay the city $1,800—$1,800 she did not have—plus the cost of towing and storage. Without the money to pay the city, she was forced to give up her car and declare personal bankruptcy. Now, seven months later, she’s broken up with her boyfriend and is forced to ride the bus to work for the first time in her life.

“In many ways, Melisa was victimized twice: First by her partner and a second time by Detroit’s outrageous vehicle forfeiture program, which turns a blind-eye to the innocence of owners,” said Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at IJ. “Innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock American value, and yet, under Detroit’s civil forfeiture program innocence is irrelevant. It is clearly unconstitutional to force one person to pay for another person’s crime.”

Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture does not require the property owner to have committed a crime. Anyone’s vehicle can be seized based on a police officer’s mere suspicion that it was, in some way, connected to a crime. Even being near an alleged crime is enough, which Detroit resident Robert Reeves, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, found out the hard way.

Robert works as a construction worker. Last summer, a contractor hired Robert to help clear out debris from an empty lot. On Robert’s way home, police arrested him and alleged that the tractor he’d driven at the job site was stolen. But he had no idea what was going on; the contractor had provided the equipment and Robert had no idea where it came from. Robert assured the officers that he knew nothing about the alleged theft, and had no reason to believe that the contractor was connected to criminal activity, but it didn’t matter. Police released him, but seized his car and money. No one was charged with a crime, and yet, five months later, Robert’s car remains in a city impound lot.

“Detroit’s forfeiture program is less like a justice system and more like having your car stolen and paying a ransom to get it back,” said Hottot. “Once police seize a car, there is no judge or jury. Instead, prosecutors give owners a choice. They can either pay the city’s ransom or hire an attorney and enter a byzantine process that is confusing, time-consuming, and expensive. The process is designed to ensure that owners fail nearly every time. I’ve watched this happen time and time again, and never once have I seen an owner successfully make it to court and get his or her car back.”

“My car was very important to me and now my life has been turned upside down,” said Ingram. “Everything suffers when you don’t have a car, especially in a city like Detroit. I’ve been late to work and missed doctor’s appointments because I don’t have a way to get there. No one should have to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Detroit’s forfeiture program has been controversial since its inception. More than 25 years ago, Wayne County sheriff’s deputies seized a car co-owned by a woman named Tina Bennis and her husband. Tina’s husband had been convicted of gross indecency for an encounter with a prostitute that took place in their family car. Like Melisa, Tina obviously had not consented to, and was not even aware of, her husband’s illicit activities, but unlike Melisa, the Bennis’ car was jointly-owned. Despite Tina’s obvious innocence, the county took the car anyway.

Tina contested the forfeiture, and her case eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court. There, she argued that punishment of innocent people violates the due process guarantee of the U.S. Constitution. 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.

“To this day, the Bennis decision remains one of the worst property rights decisions that the Supreme Court has ever handed down,” said IJ Attorney Kirby West. “It has enabled cities, states and the federal government to deprive innocent property owners of their cars, cash, or other property without even a modicum of due process. Thankfully, courts across the country have begun to see the injustice of civil forfeiture and the Supreme Court will eventually have to correct this grievous decision.”

In response to lawsuits by IJ, federal judges in Albuquerque and Philadelphia have shutdown municipal forfeiture programs similar to Detroit’s. And last year IJ secured a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment limits how far the government can go in using civil forfeiture to take property from people for minor crimes.

“Detroit drivers have suffered for decades under the Bennis decision,” said IJ President Scott Bullock. “We’ve filed this lawsuit to right that wrong and restore justice to a system devoid of it for too long.”