One woman was forced to declare bankruptcy after being hit with a $1,800 fee to get her car back–all because her boyfriend had been at a “suspicious” barbecue.
A Detroit-area lawsuit claims that Wayne County’s vehicle seizure program is unconstitutional, leaving innocent people with cars to drive.
According to Michigan Radio, the complaint explains how Wayne County’s vehicle seizure unit takes custody of cars believed to be used in criminal activity or purchased with drug money. But oftentimes, the vehicles are never returned after proceedings are complete, even if the owner was found innocent or simply lent a suspect their ride.
Of course, Wayne County doesn’t lave vehicle-owners without recourse. If a car isn’t permanently appropriated, it may be returned to its owner contingent upon the payment of certain fees.
To retrieve a confiscated vehicle, owners have to pay $900 plus an assortment of other fees—a sum the lawsuit refers to as a “ransom.” But it isn’t an option immediately made available. Owners have to wait at least six months to retrieve their confiscated vehicles, even if they’ve been cleared of involvement in any crime or don’t face indictment.
“For too long, the residents of Wayne County and Detroit have been preyed upon under flimsy legal pretenses,” said Institute for Justice attorney Wesley Hottot.
And, as Michigan Radio notes, there’s no due process to challenge confiscation.
“What we are focused on here is Wayne County’s practice of seizing property based on the thinnest of pretenses, and then holding that property for at least six months,” Hottot said. “The government can’t seize someone’s property and hold it for six months without giving them any opportunity to go before a neutral judge and plead their case.”
Michigan Radio reports that the case is seeking class action certification. In the meantime, it has two plaintiffs. One—a Southfield resident—lent her car to her then-boyfriend, who tried soliciting a prostitute. While the man was never charged with a crime, law enforcement seized the vehicle and refused to release it until she paid a fine and fees.
In total, says The Detroit News, Melisa Ingram was forced to pay more than $1,300.
The same woman’s car was later confiscated when her boyfriend left a barbecue, solely on the grounds that the hosting home was a suspected drug den. This time, however, the Vehicle Seizure Unit demanded she pay “at least” $1,800 to get her car back.
While the woman was able to afford the ransom the first time, she couldn’t the second. Hottot says she was forced to file for bankruptcy.
“If not for the first seizure of her car, Melisa would not have declared bankruptcy,” the lawsuit states. “The second seizure only compounded her financial problems and led her to release the vehicle […] in bankruptcy.”
Hottot says that, even though Ingram filed for bankruptcy, authorities filed a civil forfeiture complaint against her and prevented her from retrieving other personal belongings for close to seven months.
“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 [sic] to the innocence of owners,” Hottot said in a statement.
The other plaintiff—a Detroit resident—was pulled over by police after leaving a construction site. He was then accused of using stolen construction equipment. While the man maintained that he wasn’t responsible for the tools and didn’t know where they came from, officers still took away his car, cash and cell phones.
None of the Detroit man’s property was ever returned.
Hottot says people like his two clients face victimization because certain law enforcement entities within Wayne County abuse civil forfeiture laws.
“This all flows from the abuse of civil forfeiture,” he said. Although Michigan recently amended its state-level civil forfeiture law to require that a person be convicted of a crime before police can confiscate any property, this case “deals with Wayne County’s unconstitutional practices of seizing and retaining property prior to forfeiture.”
Hottot further alleges that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has an incentive to encourage illegal seizures: it keeps the proceeds, both from “ransom” payments and auctions. In the past two years alone, the county “has forfeited no fewer than 2,600 cars and collected not less than $1.2 million in revenue.”
“That gives them a direct incentive to police for profit, not public safety,” Hottot said.