J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 9, 2023

DETROIT—In February 2020, Detroit resident Robert Reeves partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a class action lawsuit aimed at putting an end to Wayne County’s practice of seizing Detroiters’ cars without charging them with a crime. At the time, he had no way of knowing just how low Wayne County would go to silence his voice and attempt to put an end to his lawsuit. 

Within days of filing suit, Wayne County prosecutors slapped Robert with two bogus felony charges. With IJ’s help, Robert hired an attorney and fought back. Months later a judge dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence. But that didn’t stop the county, which refiled the identical charges against Robert. Once again, he mounted a defense and won. 

Now he’s fighting back. Today he’s filed a new federal civil rights lawsuit against Wayne County to put an end to its campaign of harassment and intimidation. 

“The government cannot use bogus criminal charges to attempt to silence its critics,” said IJ Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “At the core of the First Amendment is the idea that Americans are free to criticize their government without fear of intimidation or retaliation. And yet, that’s precisely what Wayne County prosecutors have done in their no-holds-barred attempt to derail Robert’s lawsuit. In more than thirty years of work, the Institute for Justice has not seen such a brazenly unconstitutional litigation tactic. We’re confident that with this second lawsuit, the courts will not only end the retaliation, but also hold those responsible to account.”

Robert—an auto mechanic, construction worker, and lifelong Detroiter—is no stranger to Wayne County’s abusive legal tactics. In July 2019, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office impounded his 1991 Chevrolet Camaro after he visited a job site where there were pieces of heavy equipment that had allegedly been stolen from a Home Depot. He was never charged with a crime, and he assured the police he had no knowledge of any theft. His innocence did not matter—Wayne County seized his car without evidence, and they demanded a $900 “retribution fee” to give it back. Appalled, Robert joined two other Detroiters to file a lawsuit challenging Wayne County’s seize-and-ransom policy.

Within two weeks of filing suit, Wayne County began a concerted campaign to silence him and force him to drop his case. The prosecutor’s office twice filed bogus felony charges against him for receiving and concealing stolen property. Then, on both occasions, the county attorney asked the judge overseeing Robert’s class action to suspend his suit, arguing that he could not challenge the county in court so long as he was accused of felonies. None of these legal tactics were based on evidence: They were roadblocks designed to intimidate Robert into giving up his case.

“Whether it is in a court of law or the court of public opinion, the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to criticize their government without fear of retaliation,” said IJ Litigation Fellow Christian Lansinger. “When government officials abuse their powers to interfere with this right, they must be held accountable.”

Robert refused to back down, and a judge dismissed the felony charges twice for lack of evidence. At the risk of future prosecution, he is speaking out again to ensure that the county cannot retaliate against others who question its policies and practices.

“They’ve taken my car and tried to throw me in jail, but I’m still standing,” he said. “I’m not going to take the county’s threats sitting down. This isn’t about money or payback. This is about making sure the county can’t do this to anyone else.”

This lawsuit asks the court to hold that Wayne County’s retaliatory actions violate both the United States and Michigan Constitutions. It is also part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the idea that if citizens must follow the law, then government officials must follow the Constitution.