Opinion: Police take Detroiter's car, roll over his rights

Kirby Thomas West and Daryl James

Robert Reeves got a shock when he stepped out of a Detroit service station in July 2019. Police had surrounded his 1991 Chevrolet Camaro, but not to admire the $10,000 of work he had put into the vehicle.

The officers had come instead to impound the car, which they claimed was linked to a crime by three degrees of separation. The vehicle was not involved. Reeves was not involved. But he had spoken earlier in the day with a man who sometimes hired him for construction work. As it turns out, police suspected Reeves’ acquaintance in the theft of equipment from Home Depot.

Reeves had no way of knowing, but police still took his Camaro — along with $2,200 in cash that he carried that day for a possible vehicle purchase. Hundreds of similar seizures occur every year in Detroit and the surrounding communities of Wayne County, Michigan.

Rather than accept the abuse, Reeves and another plaintiff have partnered with the Institute for Justice and will fight back with a federal class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 5, 2020, against Wayne County.

Robert Reeves speaks about his experience having his vehicle impounded despite not committing a crime during a press conference by the Institute for Justice in front of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse, in Detroit, February 5, 2020. The institute announced a class action lawsuit to ask for the end of civil forfeiture in Wayne County.

The complaint focuses on a disturbing police practice called civil forfeiture. Criminal convictions are not necessary in these cases, and prosecutors often do not even file charges. A 2019 nationwide study from the Institute for Justice suggests the primary motive is profit, not crime-fighting.

The problem appears especially bad in Wayne County, where public records obtained by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy show $1.2 million in revenue from 2,600 vehicle seizures in 2017 and 2018 combined. That’s more than 3.5 vehicles per day, on average.

With so much potential revenue, the county focuses on efficiency to keep the cash flowing. Citizens have a right to due process, but gathering evidence, filing charges and going to court take time.

Productivity numbers would drop if police and prosecutors worried too much about constitutional rights or took time to consider the human element in each case. Reeves, for example, is a father of five young children who did nothing wrong. He fixes cars and does construction work to make ends meet, and losing his car was a serious blow.

A just system would weigh these factors. But Wayne County, in its rush to maximize revenue, treats individuals like interchangeable parts on a Henry Ford assembly line. Seized assets come in, get processed, and move as quickly as possible toward permanent forfeiture.

Patrol officers start the scheme by seizing vehicles on the thinnest of pretenses. Simply getting caught in a neighborhood known for prostitution or drugs is enough. Once police take possession, the clock starts ticking.

Owners who fail to file a claim of property within 17 days lose everything. Others get diverted to the county’s Vehicle Seizure Unit, where prosecutors offer a one-size-fits-all settlement: $900 for a first “offense” plus towing and storage fees that can top $600 in the first month.

Most people, desperate to recover their primary means of transportation, accept the deal. Others demand their day in court, throwing a wrench into the county’s well-oiled machine. Asserting constitutional rights, however, is a risk.

More than 25 years ago, Wayne County resident Tina Bennis appealed her claim all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Reeves, she was not accused of wrongdoing, but she still lost her property in the end. Despite the history, Reeves will press forward in the pursuit of justice.

Due process may not always be efficient, but the U.S. Constitution demands it.

Kirby Thomas West is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.