J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 20, 2020

Today, after illegally seizing and holding Robert Reeves’s 1991 Chevrolet Camaro for the last seven months, Detroit police agreed to return it along with $2,280 in cash they seized from him in July 2019. He picked up the car this morning.

The police’s sudden change of heart comes on the heels of a federal class action lawsuit filed earlier this month by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of Robert and others whose cars were illegally seized by Wayne County prosecutors using a controversial practice called civil forfeiture. The lawsuit challenges the county’s use of civil forfeiture to take vehicles—often from innocent owners like Robert—and hold them ransom until the owners pay exorbitant fines.

“It shouldn’t take a federal class action lawsuit for an innocent driver to get his car out of one of Detroit’s notorious impound lots,” said Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at IJ. “The return of Robert’s property is too little, too late. Robert’s life was upended when he lost his car for seven months. Detroit’s car forfeiture program is fundamentally unconstitutional, and our lawsuit on behalf of Robert, Melisa Ingram and others victimized by the practice will proceed through the courts.”

Robert’s ordeal started this summer when he was pulled over after visiting a construction site to meet someone about a potential job. Unluckily for Robert, the man he met with was accused of stealing construction equipment—a crime unrelated to Robert or his car. In Wayne County, this brief contact with a suspected criminal was enough for law enforcement to take Robert’s car and cash, even though Robert was never charged with a crime and nobody alleged that he did anything wrong.

Robert’s outcome is far from typical. For vehicle owners who refuse, or are unable, to pay the sum set by Wayne County prosecutors, navigating Detroit’s byzantine vehicle forfeiture system is complicated and time-consuming. It can take months to get in front of a judge, and even then, innocence is not a defense if someone else used the vehicle in connection with a crime.

“The fact that it took seven months and a lawsuit to get Wayne County to return Robert’s car reinforces the importance of this litigation,” said IJ attorney Kirby Thomas West. “There are at least 1,300 people each year who get caught up in this system, and they won’t be as fortunate as Robert. We look forward to continuing the fight to end Wayne County’s unconstitutional vehicle forfeiture racket once and for all.”