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Lawsuit accuses Wayne County of unconstitutional vehicle seizures, holding them for "ransom"

cars in parking lot
Adobe Stock

A Wayne County program that targets cars suspected of drug activity or prostitution is an unconstitutional racket, according to a new federal lawsuit.

That lawsuit lays out how the county’s vehicle seizure unit regularly takes cars based on suspected criminal activity, even if no one is ever charged or convicted—and even if the car’s owner isn’t the one suspected of a crime.

It then charges $900 plus additional fees—what the lawsuit calls a “ransom”—to get the car back. And it does so without affording owners any due process to challenge the seizure for at least six months.

“What we are focused on here is Wayne County’s practice of seizing property based on the thinnest of pretenses, and then holding that property for at least six months,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit. “The government can’t seize someone’s property and hold it for six months without giving them any opportunity to go before a neutral judge and plead their case.”

The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, currently has two plaintiffs. One, a Southfield woman, loaned her car to her then-boyfriend, who allegedly used it to solicit a prostitute. The man was never charged with a crime, but police seized the woman’s car until she paid to get it back. She later had her car seized again with the boyfriend behind the wheel, after he left a barbecue at a home suspected of drug activity. That time, she couldn’t afford to pay to get the car back and was forced to file for bankruptcy, Hottot said.

The other plaintiff, a Detroit man, was pulled over by police after leaving a job site, where he was accused of using stolen construction equipment. The man said he wasn’t responsible for the equipment at the site and didn’t know where the equipment came from, but police still seized his car, along with cash and two cell phones. The property has never been returned.

“This all flows from the abuse of civil forfeiture (laws)," Hottot said. Michigan amended its civil forfeiture law last year to require that a person be convicted of a crime in order for police to take someone’s property, but Hottot said this case “deals with Wayne County’s unconstitutional practice of seizing and retaining property prior to forfeiture.”

Hottot said the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which runs the vehicle seizure unit, gets to keep the proceeds from these seizures. “That gives them a direct incentive to police for profit, not public safety,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on pending litigation.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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