Seizing Property a Subject Up for Debate in Michigan Lawsuit
Stephen Nichols, 42, is part of a class-action federal lawsuit filed in June involving himself and two others whose vehicles were seized by Detroit area police never to be seen again. Nichols was pulled over in Lincoln Park on July 2, 2015. He didn’t have valid insurance, so his 1998 Toyota Avalon was taken away and his property is still impounded in a Brownstown Township lot.
The lawsuit alleges the drivers’ 14th Amendment due process rights were violated when their vehicles were seized and impounded. Wayne County prosecutors and sheriffs are defendants in the lawsuit. “Mr. Nichols still hasn’t had a hearing, which is ridiculous,” said Shaun Godwin, attorney for the plaintiffs. “The law says prosecutors have to bring a case promptly, but it’s not defined under the law what ‘promptly’ is.”
Ed Zelenak, attorney for the City of Lincoln Park, which also is named in the lawsuit, confirmed Nichols pleaded guilty to having fraudulent insurance at the time. Yet, critics of property forfeitures say they violate the law’s presumption of innocence. The case is seeking unspecified damages, and closely follows a bill approved in May by the state House requiring Michigan police to secure a criminal conviction before seizing property.
However, in 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would uphold civil forfeitures at the federal level, indicating they are a “key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains and prevent new crimes from being committed.”
Sessions’ announcement was highly criticized. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said he doubted civil forfeitures were constitutional. “This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas said. “Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.”
The Supreme Court has historically rejected challenges to civil forfeitures, including the landmark 1996 case of a Royal Oak resident, Tina Bennis, who said her car was improperly seized because she didn’t know her husband had used it to pick up a prostitute. “Normally, the Supreme Court has looked at these cases as violations of the Fourth Amendment (which covers probable cause and unreasonable search and seizure), and they’ve been upheld, but now they’ll look at it from a different perspective,” said Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, at the time. “The argument the court will now hear is that forfeitures constitute an unreasonable fine on people’s assets. It’ll be interesting to see how they rule.”
Skorup said the state has made some progress in recent years, stating during the majority of the 2000s, police seized an estimated $20 million-$25 million in assets annually. “But the first time they had to put a report out (in 2017, which covered 2016), that went down to $15 million,” he said.
Last year, Michigan police seized an estimated $13 million in civil property, according to the state police 2018 Asset Forfeiture Report. Of this number, 736 people were not charged with a crime and 220 were charged but not convicted. Another 228 weren’t charged because they cooperated.