Open-Records Law Reveals: Cops Take Cars From Little Guys; School Pay Tricks; Much More
Government likes secrecy and Michigan officials get more clever at ducking records requests
The website of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office gives high praise to its special operations unit.
“The Special Operation Division prosecutors and investigators handle complex criminal and civil cases,” the county claims. “These sensitive cases require a thorough and often lengthy investigation to ensure that justice is served.”
The reality is more complicated and sometimes tawdry, involving a police unit that took cars from low-income individuals for allegedly committing low-level offenses.
The scheme involved Wayne County law enforcement officers staking out Detroit marijuana dispensaries in 2017 and 2018. They would observe individuals driving away away from a dispensary and then pull them over. If the individuals did not have a medical-marijuana card with them, officers would seize the vehicle for being a crime vehicle. But in many or most cases, the county brought no criminal charges against the individuals.
In two instances, Detroit residents lost their cars to the county for buying $10 and $15 worth of pot. Over one two-year period, the county seized more than 2,600 vehicles for allegedly ties to a crime.
This operation was not described by any government press release or website. The public only knows about it because researchers used Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to obtain records of the forfeitures, and reporters wrote about them in published news stories.
As frequently happens, information available only because of an open records law sheds light on government actions that would otherwise escape the public’s notice.
In recognition of that fact, March 14-20 is Sunshine Week. It was begun in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to promote open government.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1976. It requires state agencies and local governments to turn over government documents upon request, subject to exceptions specified in the law, after they receive payment to cover the cost of fulfilling the request. But over the years, government officials have becoming increasingly resistant to the concept of sharing information with the public.
For example, in response to a 2019 Freedom of Information Act request, Wayne County turned over documents from its vehicle seizure program at no charge.
But when the Mackinac Center for Public Policy requested that same information for 2020, the county demanded $19,000 for its costs. In 2021, the county wanted $15,000 for another year’s information. However, Wayne County did turn over the 2021 information at no cost.
Using public records to reveal this operation demonstrated, again, how the FOIA law is the public’s best tool for uncovering government actions that would otherwise remain hidden.
Another example: A document request filed under the FOIA law exposed a Detroit Police Department employee who claimed to have worked 2,617.2 hours of overtime in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Added to a regular 40 hour work week, this translated into 90.3 hours on the job every week, 52 weeks a year.
Detroit refused to release the name of that employee but said in 2019 it was investigating the amount of overtime. The city has since ignored numerous emails seeking the results of that investigation.
In 2018, responses to a FOIA request revealed that Donald Lewis, president of AFSCME Council 25, Local 1799, a union for Flint city employees, had collected $161,000 from the city. The amount included about $20,000 for “standby” time, which meant he was getting paid for being in his home.
The FOIA law also gives access to facts that can provide important context to claims made by government officials.
For example, in 2018, a story published by Michigan Education Association quoted a local union president complaining about teachers’ pay.
The item quoted Utica Schools employee and union president Liz Parkinson. She complained that teachers in her district needed a second job to support their families; the story noted that Parkinson herself drove on weekends for ridesharing services such as Uber. Responses to a FOIA request revealed that Parkinson had collected $107,402 in school pay that year.