The Institute of Justice has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Wayne County, Michigan, alleging that county police seize vehicles from residents in Detroit simply because they have driven in or out of high-crime areas.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Melisa Ingram of Detroit. Police seized her vehicle twice after accusing her of committing crimes without ever formally charging her. Ingram had to pay thousands of dollars to get her vehicle back to prevent the county prosecutor from keeping it under civil asset forfeiture laws.
Civil asset forfeiture is a nationwide system that allows authorities to seize property—cash, vehicles, electronics, houses, and the like—that are supposedly connected to a crime. Proponents of asset forfeiture laws say it is a necessary tool to disrupt criminal activity by targeting illicit proceeds, but civil liberty groups like the Institute of Justice argue there are too many incentives for police to abuse it and not enough protections for innocent citizens incorporated within it.
According to the lawsuit filed on February 5, Ingram’s 2017 Ford Fusion was first seized in late 2018 after she loaned it to a former boyfriend. Her ex-boyfriend was detained by county deputies for allegedly soliciting a prostitute, but he wasn’t charged with any crime. That didn’t stop country deputies from seizing the vehicle and issuing a notice to Ingram that the county intended to keep it using asset forfeiture. Ingram had to make a settlement payment to get her car back.
The vehicle was seized a second time in the summer of 2019. Ingram once again loaned it to her boyfriend so he could drive to a friend’s house. The boyfriend was pulled over after he purportedly left a house police allege was connected to criminal activity. Again, no one was charged, but the prosecutor’s office seized the vehicle and demanded another settlement payment from Ingram.
Police in Wayne County are running an aggressive forfeiture operation as part of a campaign targeting criminals involved with drugs and prostitution in high-crime areas. According to public records, the county has seized more than 2,600 cars over the past two years, raking in more than $1.2 million in asset forfeiture revenues.
No one was charged with a crime in 438 of those cases. In almost a dozen cases, the vehicles were seized under suspicion of a drug violation, even though records show police didn’t find any drugs. Wayne County prosecutors usually offer to settle such cases and return the owner’s vehicle for a $900 fee plus additional storage and towing fees.
“Civil forfeiture is one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today,” said Institute of Justice attorney Wesley Hottot. “It allows police and prosecutors to seize and then permanently take people’s property without even charging them with a crime. You don’t have the kind of protections that you would have in a normal criminal proceeding.”
In its lawsuit, the Institute of Justice claims these settlement offers, plus the costly and lengthy process of challenging a seizure, amount to a shakedown and violate the 4th, 8th, and 14th Amendment.
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