November 12, 2009 at 1:00 am

Police property seizures ensnare even the innocent

Money raised by Metro Detroit agencies increases 50% in five years

Mike LaBlanc of Plymouth checks out cars at an auction in Wayne County's Brownstown Township. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office took in $8.69 million from civil seizures in 2007. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Local law enforcement agencies are raising millions of dollars by seizing private property suspected in crimes, but often without charges being filed -- and sometimes even when authorities admit no offense was committed.

The money raised by confiscating goods in Metro Detroit soared more than 50 percent to at least $20.62 million from 2003 to 2007, according to a Detroit News analysis of records from 58 law enforcement agencies. In some communities, amounts raised went from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands -- and, in one case, into the millions.

"It's like legalized stealing," said Jacque Sutton, a 21-year-old college student from Mount Clemens whose 1989 Mustang was seized by Detroit police raiding a party. Charges against him and more than 100 others were dropped, but he still paid more than $1,000 to get the car back.

"According to the law, I did nothing wrong -- but they're allowed to take my property anyway. It doesn't make sense."

While courts have maintained the government's right to take property involved in crimes, police seizures -- also known as forfeitures -- are a growing source of friction in Michigan, especially as law enforcement agencies struggle to balance budgets.

"Police departments right now are looking for ways to generate revenue, and forfeiture is a way to offset the costs of doing business," said Sgt. Dave Schreiner, who runs Canton Township's forfeiture unit, which raised $343,699 in 2008. "You'll find that departments are doing more forfeitures than they used to because they've got to -- they're running out of money and they've got to find it somewhere."

The increase in property seizures merely is a byproduct of diligent law enforcement, some law enforcement officials say.

"We're trying to fight crime," said Police Chief Mike Pachla of Roseville, where the money raised from forfeitures jumped more than tenfold, from $33,890 to $393,014.

"We would be just as aggressive even if there wasn't any money involved."

Roseville had among the most dramatic increases over the five-year period examined by The News. But several other agencies also more than doubled their takes, including Novi, Trenton, Farmington Hills, Southfield, the Michigan State Police, Shelby Township, Livonia, Warren and Romulus.

The increase in money coming in leads to a higher percentage of the police budget being covered by seizures. In Roseville, the share of the police budget raised from forfeitures went from 0.3 percent to 4.2 percent. In Romulus, it jumped from 4.5 percent to 11.2 percent from 2003-2007, the most recent years for which comparable records were available. Some agencies said records weren't available.

Police and prosecutors profit because citizens must either pay to get their confiscated property back or lose their cars, homes and other seized assets to the arresting agencies, which auction them off.

The increased reliance on seized property to fund police operations amounts to a trade-off for law enforcement. The tough economy may be prompting law enforcement agencies to use an "entrepreneurial spirit," but that makes for bad public relations, said Tom Hendrickson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Courts support seizures

The friction over seizures is a result of two competing legacies in U.S. law. While the Fourth Amendment, adopted in 1791, protects the right of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled in 1827 that a Spanish-owned ship could be seized after it fired on a U.S. vessel. Whether or not the crew was convicted, the brig was the principal offender, it ruled.

And 169 years later, the nation's high court reaffirmed the notion when it ruled that a Royal Oak woman couldn't challenge the seizure of the family sedan after her husband was caught having sex with a prostitute inside, even though she didn't know the car was being used for that purpose.

Just last month, the high court heard the case of six people from Chicago who sought prompt hearings on the seizure of their cars and money. When a federal attorney told the court the government needs time to determine who owns a car and to investigate that person's connection to the criminal activity, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said: "I'm sorry. You take the car and then you investigate?"

A ruling, expected to come on procedural grounds, is due by the end of the Supreme Court's term in June and isn't expected to change law on property forfeiture.

"Unfortunately, the Supreme Court so far has ruled that they're not unconstitutional," said Kary Moss, director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union.

Modern civil forfeiture laws originally were passed in the 1970s and 1980s to allow police to seize the means of committing crimes. For instance, if a drug dealer was using a boat to transport drugs, the law enabled officers to confiscate the vessel before the case went to trial.

But the laws expanded over the years to allow the seizure of property that had only a loose connection to the alleged crime, and police now are taking property for infractions that would not have resulted in forfeitures in the past, including minor drug possession, gambling, drag racing, drunken driving and even loitering near illegal activity.

While laws governing seizures by federal authorities have been reformed to make it more difficult for them to seize property, state legislatures, including Michigan's, have not followed suit.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office often makes people pay to get their seized property back without filing any charges -- and in some cases citizens such as Sutton must pay even though police and prosecutors admit they can't prove any law was broken. In his case, police raided a dance party they thought was a blind pig and issued tickets to more than 100 people, all of which were later dropped.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined comment, but issued a written statement explaining that she wants to get criminals off the street, and that the law allows her office to seize property without filing charges.

Canton's Sgt. Schreiner insisted forfeiture laws should be wielded responsibly.

"There's a right way and a wrong way to do forfeitures," he said. "First of all, you should always file charges; if you don't have a case against someone, you shouldn't seize their property.

"But even when there is a crime, the law should be used as it was intended. If we seize a computer that was used to commit identity fraud, that's a good thing. But if Joe Citizen complains that he was arrested for a small amount of drugs, and we took his refrigerator and silverware, then I think he has a valid complaint."

Agencies ramp up efforts

Many of the increases in forfeitures obtained by local police agencies aren't the result of money hunting, officials say, although they also admit their efforts to take property have increased.

When Romulus saw a 118 percent jump in forfeiture revenues from 2003-07, the increase was not the result of more criminal activity, Chief Michael St. Andre said.

"It's because our forfeiture efforts have ramped up in the past few years," he said.

Revenue was not a primary concern, he said, "but it is nice when we're able to purchase things we need from arrests.

"I don't have to go to the city and ask for things like bulletproof vests or computers."

In Trenton, forfeitures hit a high of $874,499 in 2006. Police Chief William Lilienthal said his department joined a federal drug task force in 2005 that focused on asset seizures, which partially accounts for the increase.

Novi saw the biggest revenue increase in forfeiture revenues, going from $12,278 in 2003 to $2.7 million in 2007. But police officials said that spike is largely attributed to a 2005 arrest of a nationwide drug cartel that netted millions of dollars over a three-year period.

Yet adding to the dissent over seizures is that police agencies are able and even required to return the proceeds from forfeitures into more law enforcement activities, which can make a seizure look like a money-grab even if it isn't.

That's risky business, said Hendrickson, who represents the state's chiefs of police.

"Police departments should never make revenue a prime concern," he said. "That undermines people's confidence in their police officers."

Under state law, police departments may use the funds raised from most seizures indiscriminately within their own departments, although drug forfeiture money must be put back into fighting drugs.

But even that rule is being relaxed because of the tough economy. Earlier this year, Romulus police were able to purchase 16 new Dodge Chargers from drug forfeiture funds, which usually isn't allowed.

"They allowed it this year because the economy is so bad, it's an emergency situation," St. Andre said. "We contacted the DEA and asked permission to use that money to purchase vehicles."

In Trenton, forfeiture revenues paid for a new firing range.

"Forfeitures are a way to help supplement your budgetary issues," Trenton Chief William Lilienthal said.

"You can't supplant your budget with them, but you can supplement it. If you need something, you can utilize those funds to purchase it."

ghunter@detnews.com">ghunter@detnews.com The Detroit News' Bridget Baulch and Mike Wilkinson contributed.

Eastpointe Police Officer Randy Diegel, with his K-9 Tico, talks to ... (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
A vehicle is towed after a prostitution sting in Romulus in April. Police ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Jacque Sutton, 21, says police seized his 1989 Mustang in 2008 when they ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)