Editorial: Wayne County, stop holding cars ransom

The Detroit News

People should not have to pay for a crime they didn’t commit, let alone a crime for which they aren’t even charged. But a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court this month claims the Wayne County Vehicle Seizure Unit has been enacting this injustice for decades. 

The suit filed Feb. 4 by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, targets Wayne County for seizing innocent people’s cars and ransoming them at high prices.

The county should stop this unfair practice.

More:Attorney: Suit targets 'seize and ransom' vehicle forfeitures

Claiming the county’s civil asset forfeiture practices are unconstitutional and unfair, the suit has two plaintiffs: Melisa Ingram, a single mom driven into bankruptcy by Wayne County’s repeated seizure of her 2017 Ford Fusion; and Robert Reeves, who has been waiting since last July to get back his 1991 Chevrolet Camaro, two cellphones and more than $2,000 in cash.

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.

In both instances, neither plaintiff was charged with a crime, but the county seized their cars citing suspected crimes of others.

In instances like these, the suit argues, Wayne County turns a blind eye to the innocence of owners. 

Jarrett Skorup, director of communications at the Mackinac Center, says Wayne County is the chief abuser of Michigan’s civil assets forfeiture system, bringing in around $600,000 per year.

“If you don’t even have anything to charge someone with, you should never seize it in the first place,” Skorup says. “Counties should only seize property if they are actually investigating a crime, and if their investigation doesn’t proceed in a reasonable time-frame, they should give it back.”

Last year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed bills reforming civil asset forfeiture. Under the new law, individuals must be convicted of a crime before they can lose property permanently through forfeiture. The reforms also speed up the process by which seized property is returned to rightful owners.

These are important reforms protecting private property, and they should help put a halt to abuses going forward. The instances in the lawsuit predate the new requirements. 

Prior to the 2019 law, police could bypass charging someone with a crime and grab a suspect’s vehicle simply by citing something they believed the suspect had done wrong, leaving them with few options, including paying a fine of $1,000 plus towing fees to get their car back right away or simply abandoning the vehicle — with the county benefiting from any proceeds.

If the person refused to pay the fines or challenge the forfeiture within a month, the county could auction off the vehicle and keep the profits. 

Under the 2019 law, a person's property must be returned to them within 14 days of being found not guilty in court or within 90 days of seizure if there is no warrant.

Wayne County should update its Vehicle Seizure Unit to reflect the recent civil asset forfeiture reforms, and apply to those who were abused before the new law was enacted.