Larry Rodgers says police didn't find any drugs when he was pulled over Nov. 5 on Detroit's east side, but his van was still seized. "What they're doing now is robbery," he says. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Detroit -- The way Krista Vaughn sees it, Wayne County fined her $1,400 even though police and prosecutors admit she broke no laws.
Vaughn, who has no criminal record, was required to pay for the return of her car, which was seized by police after they mistook Vaughn's co-worker for a prostitute. Even though prosecutors later dropped the case, Vaughn still had to pay.
Her story is not unusual. In Wayne County, law enforcement officials regularly seize vehicles without levying charges -- even in cases in which they later concede no law was broken. The agency provides perhaps the most prolific and egregious example of what critics contend is the wrongful use of laws allowing the seizure of private property.
It's a practice that's paying off. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office, which helps run the prosecutor's forfeiture unit, took in $8.69 million from civil seizures in 2007, more than four times the amount collected in 2001. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office gets up to 27 percent of that money.
"Forfeiture laws are being abused by police and prosecutors who see only dollar signs," said former Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga, now a defense attorney. "It's a money grab, pure and simple; a sneaky way of getting a penalty on something prosecutors can't prove. It's like shooting fish in a barrel."
Vaughn, who works in an American Red Cross supply warehouse, dropped off her co-worker, Amanda Odom, at a Detroit bank the afternoon of Feb. 11, 2004. Both women were still wearing their Red Cross badges.
Officers from the Wayne County Sheriff's Morality Unit accused Odom of solicitation after they saw her make eye contact with passing motorists while waiting for Vaughn to pick her up from the bank. On the strength of that observation, officers ticketed Odom and seized Vaughn's 2002 Chrysler Sebring.
"We obviously weren't doing anything wrong, but the cops wouldn't listen," Vaughn said.
The charges against Odom were eventually dropped, but Vaughn still was out $900, the usual fee prosecutors require to return seized vehicles. She also had to pay another $500 in towing and storage fees, because it was several days before she could raise the money to get her car back -- plus another $400 to repair an oil pan she said was damaged when her car was towed.
"I went ahead and paid the money because it would've cost a lot more than that to get a lawyer and fight it," Vaughn said.
To be sure, there are costs associated with seizing vehicles. Martin's Towing in Brownstown Township, which handles the towing and storage of vehicles impounded by Wayne County Sheriffs, charges $130 for towing and $12 per day for storage. But that's far less than the $1,400 Vaughn had to pay.
"It took me a few weeks to get the $900 up to get my car back, and by the time I got that money, a couple hundred dollars was tacked onto the cost as storage fees," Vaughn said.
Meanwhile, Vaughn's friend Odom sued the Sheriff's Office for malicious prosecution. After a Wayne County Circuit judge determined the matter should be settled by a jury, the county appealed the case all the way to the state Supreme Court. The case is still pending.
Although ancillary to the subject of the appeal, Court of Appeals Judge Michael Talbot in February 2007 chided Wayne County attorney James Surowiec, saying the motivation for appealing Odom's case was really about forfeiture profits.
"It's all part of the ongoing exercise by the Wayne County Sheriff for seizing those vehicles and then selling them back to the owners," he said. "That's what this was all about."
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to be interviewed, but issued a written statement.
"If people are soliciting prostitutes, selling drugs or otherwise profiting from criminal activity, as prosecutors we have the right under the law to forfeit property," Worthy wrote.
Wayne County Sheriff's officials also declined to comment.
Some frown on practice
Civil forfeiture is based on the concept that property is guilty, not the owner. And since property has no legal rights, it can be confiscated for any reason, without charges being filed -- even if an officer admits no crime was ever committed.
Some law enforcement officials frown on the practice of taking property without charging the property owner.
"Seizing people's property without also charging them is like legalized extortion," Fraser Public Safety Director George Rouhib said. "If you're going to take someone's property because they supposedly committed a crime, you should also charge them with that crime."
Vehicles seized under authority of Wayne County prosecutors for alleged civil drug infractions become county property if the owner does not pay the fine, plus towing and storage fees, within 20 days. Other alleged civil offenders, such as those accused of gambling or prostitution, have 30 days to pay before the county takes ownership.
Each subsequent time someone's vehicle is seized, another $900 is added to the charge to get it back.
If motorists don't make the payment within the allotted time, their property usually is auctioned off. Wayne County prosecutors keep 17 percent of money raised through drug seizures, and 27 percent of revenues from other types of seizures. The police department that confiscated the property keeps the rest.
The seizures can be appealed before a judge, but confiscated vehicles are held in an impound lot until the case comes to trial, which can take up to four months. And because the forfeitures are civil cases, vehicle owners must prove they didn't commit a crime, which legal experts say is a difficult task.
Another deterrent to fighting the seizures: If the motorist loses the appeal, the county takes ownership of the vehicle.
"Most people find it easier just to pay the $900, rather than fight the case," Dearborn attorney William Maze said. "And that's exactly what police and prosecutors are counting on."
Laws aren't always broken
When an attractive woman standing near the corner of Vernor and Sharon in southwest Detroit asked John Liangos if he wanted a good time the morning of Nov. 7, 2008, the Southgate resident said he wasn't interested and drove away.
An hour later, as he cruised a few blocks south, he saw flashing lights in his rearview mirror.
The Wayne County Sheriff's Morality Unit seized Liangos' 1999 Ford Expedition for soliciting a prostitute, even though the unit's undercover officer acknowledged in her written report that he hadn't broken the law.
In her report of the encounter, the officer wrote: "I stated, 'Hey, baby, what's up? Liangos stated, 'Not much, just driving around.' I stated, 'Whatcha looking for?' Liangos stated, 'Never mind, I'm OK, thanks anyways.' I (said) 'Whatever dude.' Liangos then continued west on Vernor."
When the officer spotted Liangos' SUV in the area an hour later, she entered his plate into the Law Enforcement Information Network computer and saw he had been ticketed in 2004 for soliciting a prostitute, a charge he later pleaded down to disorderly conduct. Officers pulled him over and seized his SUV.
Because Liangos previously had a vehicle forfeited, the fine doubled from $900 to $1,800, which he paid.
"The officer wrote in her report that I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "My 'crime' was circling the block; last time I checked, that's not illegal."
Larry Rodgers of Detroit insists he was not trying to purchase drugs when he visited Canton Street on the city's east side the afternoon of Nov. 5. In fact, Rodgers said he never got out of his van.
He claims he was driving down the street when a Wayne County cruiser pulled him over and told him his vehicle was going to be confiscated.
"They searched me and the van and found no drugs," said Rodgers, who paid $1,150 to get his van back, despite no charges ever being filed. "Then they took my van because they said I had slowed down in front of a known drug house.
"If they say I was buying drugs then fine -- let them charge me and allow me a chance to argue it in a court of law. What they're doing now is robbery. I never thought this kind of thing could happen in America."