News Story

Court: OK For Wayne County To Seize Man’s Car For 3 Years

Legislators considering changes to state asset forfeiture law

Stephen Nichols was driving an uninsured vehicle when he was pulled over July 2, 2015, by the Lincoln Park Police Department. His car was impounded because he had fake proof of insurance.

But according to court documents, Wayne County never filed the paperwork required to take ownership of his car. Even though Nichols paid a bond to challenge the property forfeiture, Wayne County held the car for more than three years, returning it only after he filed a lawsuit.

A recent court decision upheld Wayne County’s actions.

Police officers can seize a vehicle or other assets and then hold them for months or longer without a court hearing on taking ownership. This can happen even if there is no charge or arrest, as described in the ruling of a U.S. district court judge.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan cited precedents set by other courts, including a U.S. Supreme Court case about civil asset forfeiture law. Opponents of these laws say that taking property should require a more rigorous burden of proof than the current “clear and convincing” standard.

The Legislature has recently debated but not enacted bills to move in this direction by requiring a conviction before a person’s property can be forfeited. In Michigan, up to 100 percent of civil asset forfeiture proceeds are given to the law enforcement agency that made the seizure, which critics say is a financial incentive for police to seize and then try to keep property.

Nichols filed a lawsuit against the county for failing to provide him a prompt hearing after officers seized his vehicle during a stop in which he was ticketed for driving without insurance.

But Judge Robert H. Cleland rejected his claim. “The Supreme Court of the United States has not found the Due Process Clause to require a post-deprivation, pre-forfeiture hearing, and neither does this court,” the district court opinion said. In other words, after taking his car, the police had no duty to call for a hearing under any timetable.

The vehicle was seized under Michigan’s Identity Theft Protection Act, and Nichols eventually pleaded guilty to not having proper insurance. But his vehicle was held by Wayne County for three years before it eventually gave it back after Nichols filed the lawsuit.

After his car was seized, Nichols filed a claim of interest for the vehicle and posted a 10 percent bond, as required by the county, but he did not receive an immediate hearing. In response, Nichols filed a lawsuit against the county, arguing that his 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated. After he filed the lawsuit, the county returned his vehicle, but Nichols continued to press the case on constitutional grounds.

The court acknowledged that Wayne County routinely seizes assets without providing prompt hearings. But the county explains that this is allowed under Michigan law, which has been upheld by the courts.

Maria Miller, director of communications for the Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said in an email that as soon as someone files a complaint to seek the return of an asset, the court schedules a hearing. But Miller did not comment on how long it takes to schedule these hearings. She said the “Wayne County Corporation Counsel responded to the Nichols matter through filings in federal court.”

In 2017, the latest year for which there is full data, Wayne County took vehicles from 380 people who were never charged with criminal activity.

Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take property that may have been used in furtherance of a crime. The controversy over the practice centers on what burden of proof should apply when the government seeks to keep this property. Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 4001 have been introduced in the Michigan Legislature to require a criminal conviction before that can happen. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states have enacted a standard that says authorities must obtain a conviction before permanently taking someone’s property.