ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wayne County violated the rights of Detroiters by not offering prompt court hearings within two weeks of their vehicles being seized. Wayne County regularly seizes and retains vehicles for months or longer without providing an opportunity for a hearing to challenge the seizure and get their vehicles back. The Institute for Justice (IJ) filed its class action lawsuit challenging this program in February 2020 on behalf of Detroiters whose vehicles were seized without receiving a hearing.
According to the court’s own opinion, it usually takes “at least four months, on top of any previous delays (usually an additional four to six months)” for a car owner to get in front of a judge after their car has been seized. The court further held “that Wayne County violated [the] Constitution when it seized plaintiffs’ personal vehicles—which were vital to their transportation and livelihoods—with no timely process to contest the seizure. We further hold that Wayne County was required to provide an interim hearing within two weeks to test the probable validity of the deprivation.” The court also said “that the county seized the vehicles in order to obtain proceeds from fees” and not for any health or public safety concerns.
“Does this sound like a legitimate way of cleaning up Wayne County?” said 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.”
“My car was seized and held for more than six months,” said Robert Reeves, one of three plaintiffs in the federal class action. “Because of today’s ruling, the next person the County targets will have a real opportunity to go to court and challenge the seizure of their car. And they won’t have to wait months or years to get it.”
“This is vindication,” said IJ Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot, “but it solves just one of the many problems with Wayne County’s unconstitutional car-seizure program. We aren’t going anywhere until this program is scrapped for good.”
Because the case was before the Sixth Circuit on interlocutory appeal for a single claim, it will now return to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for litigation of Plaintiffs’ other claims. Those claims include that the forfeiture scheme violates the Fourth Amendment and that the county’s routine forfeiture of vehicles from innocent owners like Robert (as well as Stephanie Wilson and Melisa Ingram, the other named plaintiffs in the suit) are unconstitutional.
The decision came down as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the upcoming term in Culley v. Marshall, a case in which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that vehicle owners have no right to a prompt, post-seizure hearing. IJ filed an amicus brief in that case on behalf of Stephanie and others, urging the Court to require hearings in cases of vehicle seizures nationwide.
“The Wayne County forfeiture machine takes in over 1,000 cars every year,” said IJ Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “Now, Detroit car owners can at least rest assured that they will have a speedy opportunity to challenge a seizure when they find themselves victims of this forfeiture machine.”