On July 2, 2015, police officers pulled Stephen Nichols over in Lincoln Park near Detroit, Michigan. When they discovered Stephen didn’t have valid insurance for his 1998 Toyota Avalon, they seized it and impounded it in a lot in nearby Brownstown Township.
In cases where property is seized, the law is clear: cases must be brought to court promptly. However, it is over three years since his car was taken, and Stephen still hasn’t had his day in court.
Attorney Ed Zelenak believes Stephen’s case has been held up because the prosecutor’s office is understaffed. He also notes that Stephen pleaded guilty to the charge of having fraudulent insurance on his vehicle. However, Shaun Goodwin, Stephen’s attorney, stressed that the law is quite clear: “The law says prosecutors have to bring a case promptly, but it’s just been in limbo for three years.”
Stephen’s Toyota was seized using a process known as civil asset forfeiture. This is a procedure where law enforcement officers can take an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime. Since it is a civil process, in most states neither a criminal conviction nor even criminal charges are required for property to be seized. In Michigan, the standard of proof required for property to be seized is “clear and convincing evidence.” This falls far short of the high standard of proof required in criminal cases, where the proof must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In addition, up to 100 percent of the proceeds from civil asset forfeitures in Michigan go directly to law enforcement funds. This has led to accusations of “policing for profit” as there is a clear benefit to law enforcement for taking an individual’s property.
With his car seized, Stephen found himself with three options. First, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office offers to settle seizures out of court—as long as they pay $900. This fee is the same whether the owner is innocent or guilty. Stephen’s second option was to forfeit his car. The third option was to pay for a lawyer and take his chances in the courts. Stephen chose the third option, and so far, nothing has happened.
Back in August, I reported on the case of Ryan Chappell, whose vehicle was seized in 2016. He also tried his luck with the court system. He took time off work three times to attend hearings, but each time the hearing was rescheduled. Ryan got his car back in 2017, but the transmission had been damaged in storage. The car was no longer drivable.
Now, Ryan and Stephen have joined together as part of a class-action federal lawsuit claiming their constitutional rights have been violated. The suit alleges that the delays both men faced while attempting to retrieve their vehicles violate their right to due process as outlined in the 14th Amendment.
Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, argues the system is not broken. “Even in those cases where there may have been something improper, the person gets their day in court. It would be ludicrous for police just to take stuff from people,” he said.
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.