News Story

Forfeiture Reform, Legal Pot Could Cost Wayne County’s Sting $500k+ Annually

‘They don’t even care about the criminal charges,’ says defense attorney

In 2017, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office set up a program that had police officers sitting outside Detroit marijuana dispensaries to observe the people who entered.

When some individuals exited the dispensary and drove off, police pulled them over and asked if they had a medical marijuana card. If the answer was no, the police would seize the vehicle.

In one instance, a targeted individual had bought $10 worth of marijuana from the dispensary, and in another, $15 worth, according to police reports. Neither person had a medical marijuana card, and the vehicles were seized.

After a vehicle is seized, its owner is given three options: Contest the seizure in court; settle and clear the case for $900; or waive certain legal rights and allow the government to take ownership of the vehicle.

The program is called Push-Off. In 2017 and 2018, Wayne County seized more than 2,600 vehicles and then sold them, collecting $560,000 and $681,500, respectively.

The legal landscape that allowed this program to flourish has changed, however, putting its rationale and procedures in question.

In November 2018, voters passed Proposal 1, making it legal under state law for adults to possess marijuana for recreational uses.

The following April, the Michigan Legislature enacted a law reforming a practice called civil asset forfeiture, through which police and prosecutors take ownership of seized property that may be related to a crime. The practice had involved very low burden-of-proof standards for government officials. Under the new law prosecutors will need to obtain a criminal conviction in most cases before they can pursue civil asset forfeiture. This goes into effect on Aug. 7.

The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t respond to emails seeking comment on how Push-Off would operate under the new laws.

But in an email to Watchdog.org, the Wayne County prosecutor criticized the new forfeiture law’s key provision:

”Since a conviction is now required, it will make it extremely difficult to prosecute high-level drug dealers,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said, according to Watchdog.org. “Often in these cases, witnesses are intimidated to the point that they do not show up for trial, sometimes losing their lives because of the retaliation. It is our fear that this will get worse now that drug dealers know that if there are no witnesses, there will be no conviction and they can get their property back.”

William Maze is an attorney who has represented people whose vehicles were seized in the Push-Off program. Maze said it was a money grab by the Wayne County prosecutor.

“They are not even filing charges. They don’t even care about the criminal charges,” said Maze, who once worked at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the publisher of Michigan Capitol Confidential. “That tells you what their real concern is; they didn’t bother to write a ticket for possession of marijuana. Their real concern is $900 [settlement].”