Last year, law enforcement in Wayne County, Michigan seized the property of 380 people and never gave it back even though those people were not charged with any crime. This type of seizure happened more times in Wayne County than in the rest of Michigan’s counties combined.
The property was taken using a procedure known as civil asset forfeiture. This is a legal process where law enforcement may seize an individual’s assets—including cash, a vehicle, or even a home—if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, criminal charges do not need to be filed for property to be taken.
Since 2015, law enforcement agencies in Michigan have been required to report civil forfeiture data to the Michigan State Police Department. Jarret Skorup, Director of Communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has examined this data. He says the vast majority of forfeitures in Wayne County involved the seizure of vehicles worth under $1,000.
Skorup believes these seizures are affecting low-income households disproportionately. In criminal cases, the accused has the right to a court-appointed lawyer. However, since these seizures are civil cases, property owners are not entitled to a lawyer. As low-income individuals may not be able to afford a lawyer, they may have a harder time navigating the legal system to get their property back.
“Thousands of people in Michigan are losing their property without being convicted and, sometimes, without even being charged,” said Skorup. “Wayne County has put civil asset forfeiture on steroids. Michigan should join other states in passing legislation to only allow assets to be forfeited from people after a court finds them guilty.”
Maria Miller, assistant prosecuting attorney at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said there are no statistics showing either the income or racial demographics of individuals whose property has been taken. Miller does not believe the law needs changing. Individuals are informed of how to challenge any forfeiture, she explained.
Last year, there were 6,666 civil asset forfeitures in Michigan. For the majority of these, law enforcement did charge the property owner with a crime. Even so, property was taken from about 1,000 individuals who were found either not guilty or who were never charged with a crime.
In Wayne County, a property owner has the option of either challenging a seizure in court or of agreeing to settle the case out of court. In the case of vehicles, an out-of-court settlement means paying the county $900.
I recently reported on two civil asset forfeitures in Wayne County. Ryan Chapell’s car was taken in 2016. When he eventually got his vehicle back, he discovered the transmission had been damaged. In another case, police seized Stephen Nichols’ car in 2015—three years later, he is still fighting to get it back.
Shaun Godwin is representing Ryan and Stephen in a class-action lawsuit against Wayne County. The lawsuit alleges Wayne County has violated citizens’ constitutional right to due process by forcing property owners to wait months or years for their cases to be heard.
“For people with low-value vehicles,” explained Godwin, “it might make more sense to walk away rather than pay $900 or hire a lawyer to fight to get their vehicle back. The time and money involved in challenging a forfeiture make this an unattractive option for many people.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.