News Story

Wayne County Took Cars From 380 People Never Charged With A Crime

2017 was ‘civil asset forfeiture on steroids’ in Detroit

Nearly 400 people in Wayne County who were never charged with a crime still lost property to law enforcement agencies last year through a legal procedure called civil asset forfeiture, according to responses to a recent public records request. When it came to police taking and keeping property from people who were never charged, Wayne County exceeded the rest of the counties combined.

Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. A state law passed in 2015 requires law enforcement agencies across Michigan to submit data about forfeiture to the Michigan State Police.

Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said the data shows nearly all of those Wayne County seizures involved vehicles valued at less than $1,000. He said it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property.

Revenue obtained from forfeited property typically goes to the agency that seized the property.

“Forfeiture is not an illegitimate tool for law enforcement; we need a mechanism to transfer the assets of people who profit from illegal activity,” Skorup said. “But thousands of people in Michigan are losing their property without being convicted, and sometimes without even being charged. Wayne County has put civil asset forfeiture on steroids. Michigan should join other states in passing legislation to only allow assets to be forfeited from people after a court finds them guilty, and shows that the property was gained through the illegal activity.”

Maria Miller, director of communications for the Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said that the law does not require a criminal charge to be filed for asset forfeiture, and that every person is given a notice that explains how they can challenge the forfeiture. Miller said the county does not have statistics that show the racial or income demographics of individuals whose assets have been seized. Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy has opposed recent proposals to reform state laws by requiring criminal convictions before forfeiture can occur.

Under current state law, a person’s assets can be seized and held while law enforcement officials investigate an alleged illegal activity. But Michigan also permits this property to be forfeited – a transfer of ownership, not just possession - to the government, regardless of whether a person is convicted or charged. Typically, police will seize property, cite the suspected illegal activity, and notify an owner that they will attempt to forfeit (keep) the assets.

In most cases, police do charge the person, who is then convicted in criminal court. But out of 6,666 forfeiture cases in 2017, about 1,000 involved people who were either charged and found not guilty or never charged at all.

In Wayne County, a person can then challenge a forfeiture action by going to court, or try to get it back by “settling” for the property, which for vehicles, typically means paying the county around $900. Critics say this practice applies a standard of “guilty until proven innocent.”

Earlier this year, three individuals filed a class-action lawsuit against Wayne County, claiming it forced people to wait months or even years to receive hearings in asset forfeiture cases. The lawsuit claimed this was a violation of the plaintiffs' right to due process under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Shaun Godwin, attorney for these plaintiffs, said that Wayne County's vehicle-seizure program disproportionately affects low-income individuals.

“For people with low-value vehicles, it might make more sense to walk away rather than pay $900 or hire a lawyer to fight to get their vehicle back,” Godwin said. “The time and money involved in challenging a forfeiture make this an unattractive option for many people. Especially because the county is going to hold the vehicle in custody while the court case plays out. Additionally, signing over the title or paying $900 is the only way to get into the vehicle and recover any property that was in the car at the time of the seizure.”

Additionally, Godwin said that most people only have one vehicle and that these seizures often prevent Michiganders from driving to work, driving their children to school, and driving themselves and their family members to medical appointments.

“Losing that vehicle is a major setback in a region where public transportation is not fully developed and does not go everywhere people need to go,” Godwin said.

In some other states, including Nebraska and New Mexico, law enforcement must obtain a criminal conviction before taking ownership of any property through civil asset forfeiture. An individual must first be found guilty and then the same court determines if the assets were gained through the illegal activity. Legislation that passed the Michigan House over the summer (House Bill 4158) would take the state part-way in this direction by requiring a conviction in most but not all cases of civil forfeiture. The Michigan Senate has not taken up the bill.