Westland — Marijuana and pizza may be a popular combination, but the state Court of Appeals ruled last week it isn’t enough to warrant police seizure of property.
The state appellate court overturned the forfeiture of a car after ruling the driver didn’t use the vehicle to buy marijuana found by police, but instead received the weed as a tip for delivering a pizza.
The 2-1 decision came down Thursday, a day after House Bill 4499, part of a seven-bill package seeking to reform the state’s forfeiture laws, was passed by the Michigan Senate, 38-0. The Michigan House of Representatives in June approved the measure 104-5.
The Westland case began with an April 2013 traffic stop, during which Westland police officer Robert Fruit found a gram of marijuana on the driver, Linda Ross.
“Linda worked as a delivery driver and had received the marijuana as a tip earlier in the day after delivering a pizza to a customer,” the State Court of Appeals decision said.
The 2007 Ford Focus was seized under civil forfeiture laws that allow authorities to confiscate property that’s used to commit crimes. Ross’ father, Steven Ross, hired attorney William Maze, who specializes in forfeiture cases, to fight the case.
“At a forfeiture trial, Fruit testified that Linda told him, upon her arrest, that she purchased the marijuana from a customer to whom she had delivered a pizza,” the appellate court decision said.
“However, Linda testified, and the trial court found credible, that she received the marijuana as a tip for delivering pizza and that she did not intend to go to the customer’s house in order to purchase the marijuana.”
Maze said: “The question in this case was, did she use the car to purchase marijuana? If not, then they can’t seize the car. Possession of a drug isn’t enough.”
While Wayne Circuit Judge Robert Colombo agreed with Maze’s contention that mere possession of marijuana isn’t enough to warrant a seizure, the judge ruled Ross’ vehicle was used for the purpose of receiving the drug, and, thus, subject to forfeiture.
Appellate judges Michael F. Gadola and Jane M. Beckering overturned the lower court’s decision, with Judge Kathleen Jenson dissenting.
“Despite Linda’s testimony that she sometimes received marijuana as a tip from various customers, there was no evidence that she expected to receive it on this particular occasion, that this particular customer had given her marijuana before, or that she was motivated to go to the customer’s house by anything other than a delivery call,” the appeals court said.
“According to plaintiff and the trial court’s perspective, the fact that ‘the car was used to receive marijuana’ because marijuana was placed into it established — on its own — that Linda used the vehicle for the purpose of receiving marijuana. By that logic, a vehicle would be subject to forfeiture in all cases of mere possession.”
Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said: “We are in the process of determining whether we will appeal this or not.”
Westland police declined to comment.
Michigan police agencies seized $23.9 million last year from suspected drug traffickers, according to a Michigan State Police report released last month.
However, that figure is likely low, since 56 agencies failed to respond to a Government Asset Forfeiture Report Form. Of the agencies that did respond, 332 reported asset forfeitures and 298 reported none.
Police are not required to file an annual report with the state detailing their forfeitures, although the proposed laws, which are awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature, would make it mandatory.
Bill 4499 would increase the burden of proof required to forfeit property in drug and public nuisance cases. Instead of the current threshold of “preponderance of the evidence,” the law would require “clear and convincing” evidence that the forfeited property was used to commit a crime.”