News Story

Wayne County Doubling Down On Forfeiture As Legislature Moves To Reform It

County’s ‘Operation Push-Off’ seized 2,600 vehicles, collected $1.2 million from owners, many never charged

Though bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the Legislature have passed bills to significantly rein in a controversial legal process for police taking ownership of private property seized from individuals, Michigan’s largest county appears to be ramping up the practice.

In an ongoing crackdown, Wayne County has seized more than 2,600 vehicles and collected more than $1.2 million in revenue from civil asset forfeiture over the past two years. That’s according to information received by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The apparent windfall is the product of a county campaign called “Operation Push-Off.” In that campaign, law enforcement agencies use civil asset forfeiture to take ownership of property seized from individuals by contending that it may be associated with a crime. Officials do not have to obtain a conviction to take ownership of someone’s property, and they are not even required to charge the owner with a crime.

In 2017, nearly 400 people lost their vehicles to Wayne County without being charged, according to data received from the sheriff’s department and Michigan State Police.

Operation Push-Off targets specific areas of Detroit and surrounding communities that are known to have high rates of illegal drug sales and prostitution. If police officers suspect that a driver has been involved with those crimes, they will stop the individual and may seize the vehicle and any money, according to Maria Miller, the director of communications for the Wayne County prosecutor.

The county gives owners of seized vehicles a choice, which is outlined in a form called “Notice of Seizure and Intent to Forfeit.” An owner who wants to challenge a forfeiture must file a claim but may then have to wait months or even years before the matter comes before a court. When it does go to court, the county must only meet a “clear and convincing” evidence standard that the item was associated with a crime before it can keep it.

Alternatively, the form allows the owner to get a vehicle back by paying a $900 “settlement fee,” plus any towing and storage fees. This appears to eliminate the possibility of the county later pursuing forfeiture, but it does not clear any outstanding criminal charges related to the seizure.

The third option stated on the form is “Prove you are an innocent owner.” The form does not offer owners any procedures for doing so or for establishing that they are not guilty of a crime. The Wayne County prosecutor’s office defends the practice.

Miller said in an email that the program has successfully reduced prostitution and narcotic activities in the areas the county targets.

“During a Push-Off operation, vehicles used for the illegal purpose of selling or purchasing illegal narcotics or used for the solicitation of prostitution are immediately seized by police agencies during the occurrence of the illegal activity,” she said. “The criminal activity is typically committed in the officers’ presence.”

The operation is meeting its stated goal, she said, which is “to improve the quality of life in Wayne County through police agency narcotic and prostitution solicitation enforcement by divesting assets (vehicles) used for the sale or receipt of illegal narcotics and other nuisance activities.”

The money received through forfeiture goes directly to the police department.

According to Miller, the forfeiture law as currently written is a useful tool for officers and assists communities plagued by prostitution and drug dealing.

Retired detective sergeant Ted Nelson investigated forfeiture cases and taught a curriculum on the issue for the Michigan State Police in the 1990s, but now favors reform. At a recent event, Nelson said forfeiture should only occur after a criminal conviction. 

"My whole thing about civil asset forfeiture is don't take money from people who are not involved in drug trafficking. Don't take things form people who aren't involved in drug trafficking," Nelson said. "I'm embarrassed by what civil forfeiture has become. ...I think [some police] have pushed the law to the limit."

Lawmakers are trying to change the law on civil asset forfeiture. The Michigan House and Senate passed separate reform bills in February by overwhelming majorities. Under the legislation, a property owner would have to be convicted of or plea to a crime in criminal court before law enforcement could take ownership of a car or other possessions.