On July 27, 2016, Ryan Chappell was driving his father’s Jeep back home on the west side of Detroit, Michigan. On his way, he stopped off at a medical marijuana dispensary. “I had just got off work,” said Ryan, “and stopped at the store sharing the parking lot with the dispensary. Then I stopped in the dispensary. Went in and walked right back out. I asked them a quick question.”
Police pulled Ryan over after he left the parking lot. They seized the 1996 Grand Cherokee Ryan had been driving. “They didn’t even search me. They didn’t give me a reason why they were towing my car,” said Ryan. Frustrated by events, Ryan asked an officer how he would be able to go to work without the vehicle. The police response was “figure it out.”
Police were able to take the car Ryan had been driving by using civil asset forfeiture. This is a legal process where law enforcement is allowed to seize property or cash without a criminal conviction or even filing criminal charges. Ryan has not been charged with any crime.
The police held onto the Jeep for so long that Ryan had to buy another car for work. “Then I had to take off work to go down there three times,” said Ryan, discussing the hearing he had to attend while attempting to get the truck back. “But they kept rescheduling, giving me the runaround.”
Ryan employed attorney Shaun Godwin to help get the vehicle back. “We asked for discovery,” said Godwin. “Let’s see your evidence. Let’s see the police reports. … And the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office wasn’t able to do that.”
Godwin was able to obtain the original police report. In it, the officer stated Ryan said he had bought marijuana from the dispensary. “That’s a lie,” said Ryan. “I never told the officer I’d bought any marijuana.” Godwin added, “That’s very interesting because there’s nothing listed that he [the officer] recovered any marijuana.”
Shortly before they had a hearing to compel law enforcement to produce the requested information, the police dropped their case. They returned the Jeep to Ryan and dropped all storage and towing fees. However, when Ryan tried to start his car, he found the transmission had been damaged. “I can’t even drive it,” said Ryan.
“I want to be compensated for all the headaches,” explained Ryan. “I had to get a new vehicle. It was a pain to get the new insurance, plates… all for nothing.”
Ryan’s father, who owns the car, is frustrated with what he sees as abuse of power. “Ain’t nothing you can do. … The police are like gangsters. They just take what they want.”
The director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, Robert Stevenson, said there may be cases where law enforcement agencies overstep their authority. “Although,” he added, “a lot of times when you did deeper, you find out there’s more information you weren’t told initially.” Stevenson then referred to a case where an individual had his vehicle taken “for no reason.” “It turns out,” said Stevenson, “the car was seized because it had stolen parts in it.”
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