November 12, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Michigan court rulings shape forfeiture law

I-94, Royal Oak cases set precedents for courts

Two Michigan cases have played pivotal roles in the dramatic increases of police seizures locally and nationwide -- regardless of whether the property owner committed a crime.

The Michigan Supreme Court in 2007 denied the appeal of Detroit motorist Tamika Smith, who was stopped in 2002 for speeding on Interstate 94 near Paw Paw. The trooper searched the car without Smith's consent and seized $180,000 found in a backpack in the trunk.

No guns, drugs or other illegal material were found. A judge later acknowledged that the money was seized improperly -- but following testimony that I-94 is a corridor for drug running, the judge allowed the forfeiture, which the state high court upheld on appeal.

"They were able to keep that money because they said my client was suspicious," said Oak Park attorney Karri Mitchell, who represented Smith.

"The Supreme Court's decision gives the police unfettered right to stop and take people's property for any or no reason. It's shocking."

Modern forfeiture laws date to 1970, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which authorized the government to seize contraband drugs, drug manufacturing and storage equipment and anything used to transport drugs. The law since has been amended to allow seizure of a widening list of properties.

Forfeitures saw a huge jump after 1984, when federal legislation permitted forfeiture proceeds to be funneled back to the police agencies that seized them.

The Smith ruling followed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1996 to allow the seizure of a Royal Oak couple's 1977 Pontiac sedan after her husband was busted for using it to have sex with a prostitute.

Tina Bennis said she didn't know her husband, John, had used the car to pick up a hooker and argued that she should be entitled to half the car's value, roughly $400, since she had done nothing wrong.

The High Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, ruled there's a long legal history to support owners losing property if it's used for illegal activity, even if they didn't know or approve.

The Supreme Court rested its majority opinion on an 1827 case in which a Spanish ship, the Palmyra, was captured after attacking a U.S. vessel. The high court held that since the Spanish ship was used in the attack, authorities were allowed to seize it whether or not the owner was convicted. The case reaffirmed the principle that property itself can be the instrument of a crime.

Tina Bennis, who still is married to John, said that argument makes no sense.

"If someone is using something illegally, I understand (it's OK) for the police to take their car," said Tina Bennis, 51, who still resides in Royal Oak. "But when the owner doesn't know the car is being used for something illegal, it's not right to punish them. If a teenager had some pot in his pocket while riding in his grandma's car, it's not right to take the old lady's car."

In his dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "While our historical cases establish the propriety of seizing a freighter when its entire cargo consists of smuggled goods, none of them would justify the confiscation of an ocean liner just because one of its passengers sinned while on board."

Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority, but warned that "improperly used, forfeiture could become more like a roulette wheel employed to raise revenue from innocent but hapless owners ... or a tool wielded to punish those who associate with criminals, than a component of a system of justice."

It's up to federal departments and the states, he said, to ensure that doesn't happen.

ghunter@detnews.com">ghunter@detnews.com (313) 222-2134