News Story

Wayne County Took Thousands of Vehicles Without Filing Criminal Charges

Federal lawsuit filed against ‘unconstitutional’ civil asset forfeitures

Two Detroit area residents, backed by lawyers from a national civil liberties nonprofit, are suing Wayne County in federal court, saying that it is unconstitutionally taking ownership of vehicles and property seized by police through a legal process called civil asset forfeiture.

Under civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement agencies take ownership of property they seize from individuals by contending that it may be associated with a crime. According to the lawsuit, the county regularly takes ownership of property even when its owners are never charged or even accused of committing a crime.

The lawsuit was filed by the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. It seeks redress for plaintiffs Melisa Ingram of Southfield, Robert Reeves of Detroit, and a class of “similarly-situated” victims of the county’s policies.

Royal Oak attorney Barton Morris is the institute’s local co-counsel. He said there are likely hundreds of innocent Michiganders who either lost their vehicles and property or paid exorbitant fees to reclaim them under the county’s unconstitutional policy. An investigation by Michigan Capitol Confidential found that law enforcement across Michigan forfeit — take ownership — of assets from more than 6,000 people every year. In hundreds of cases annually, individuals lose their cash, cars or other property without criminal charges even being filed.

The forfeiture practices of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department and Prosecutor’s Office, the lawsuit says, constitute a “seize-and-ransom policy.” According to Morris, they are egregious, long-standing and designed more to raise money than to fight crime. “The systematic forfeiture of vehicles does not serve the purposes of law enforcement, but the purpose of funding law enforcement,” he said.

According to the lawsuit, Wayne County Sheriff’s deputies seized Ingram’s 2017 Ford Fusion in 2018 while her former boyfriend was driving it. He was alleged to have used it to pick up a prostitute, but no arrest was made. Ingram, who was working and enrolled in college, was forced to pay $1,355 to get her car back.

Months later, according to the lawsuit, Ingram again allowed him to use the vehicle, in return for a promise to not use it for any illegal purpose, and he was stopped by the same deputies. He was leaving a house that was allegedly used for drugs or prostitution.

Again, no arrests were made, but the county seized Ingram’s vehicle. By then, she had filed for personal bankruptcy, in part, due to having paid the county the $1,355. She subsequently surrendered title to the vehicle to Ford Motor Credit, and the county refused to let her enter the vehicle to retrieve her personal belongings. Only in January 2020, after her attorney contacted the county, was Ingram allowed to get her items from the car.

Reeves, a 29-year-old father of five, had invested $9,000 of upgrades in his 1991 Camaro, hoping to sell it for profit. He's a construction worker and, according to the complaint, law enforcement officials seized his car in July 2019 after he left a work site. After leaving and stopping at a gas station, Reeves was surrounded by police. They questioned him for several hours about stolen construction equipment that was allegedly at the work site.

Reeves said he did not know of the alleged theft and was released without charges. The police kept the Camaro, though. They also kept two cell phones and $2,280 in cash that he was carrying for the possible purchase of another vehicle. Six months later, no criminal charges or forfeiture complaint have been filed, according to the lawsuit. Reeves and an attorney he hired have contacted Wayne County authorities dozens of times seeking the return of his property. They have received no response, according to the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the office has not reviewed the complaint and does not comment on pending litigation.

In a statement posted on the prosecutor’s website, the county’s Vehicle Seizure Unit is described as operating “a program designed to discourage the use of vehicles for either” illegal drug purchases or the solicitation of prostitutes. The office works with police agencies in an “effort to successfully clean the streets from those who participate in these vices.”

But attorney Morris and other advocates of reforming asset forfeiture policies said those policies routinely violate the constitutional rights of innocent third parties who have no connection to criminal activity.

Michigan has taken some steps to rein in the abuse of forfeiture policies, including enacting a new law in 2019. The law was prompted, in part, by frequent use of asset forfeiture. Michigan Capitol Confidential reported in April of last year, “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.”

The victims of the seizures, Morris said, are desperate to get their property back. They agree to pay redemption and storage fees even when there is no hint of criminal culpability on their part, he said.

Because of the 2019 law, Michigan now requires a criminal conviction for most cases of civil asset forfeiture. It is unclear how the individuals involved in the above cases lost their assets despite the legislation.