Civil Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Man Files Suit After Waiting 3 Years for a Hearing to Get His Seized Car Back

The government's definition of "prompt" is a little different from everyone else's, especially when it comes to asset forfeiture.


Adam Chappell inspects his car in an impound lot, seven months after the Wayne County Sheriff's Office seized it through asset forfeiture for an alleged marijuana offense while his son was driving it. No criminal charges were brought against his son.

Under Michigan law, Stephen Nichols was supposed to get a "prompt" court hearing to challenge the forfeiture of his car, which police in the town of Lincoln Park seized in 2015 because he was driving it without valid insurance. It's been three years since then, and Nichols still hasn't had his day in court.

Last month Nichols and two other plaintiffs filed a federal class-action lawsuit, first reported by The Detroit News, alleging that Wayne County police and prosecutors seize residents' property and force them to wait months, sometimes years, for a hearing. The suit argues the delays violate the 14th Amendment right to due process.

In addition, Wayne County prosecutors offer to settle cases out of court for $900, leaving owners to choose between getting their vehicle back quickly, even if they believe they were innocent, or shelling out even more money for a lawyer and waiting months to get their means of transportation back.

"[Nichols] still hasn't had any hearing," Shaun Godwin, attorney for the plaintiffs says. "The law says prosecutors have to bring a case promptly, but it's just been in limbo for three years."

The two other named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Adam and Ryan Chappell, are a father and son, respectively. According to the suit, the younger Chappell was borrowing his dad's car one day in July 2016 when Wayne County sheriff's deputies saw him pull into a medical marijuana dispensary in Detroit. The cops pulled him over as he left and seized the car. No marijuana was recovered from the car, and no criminal charges were filed in the case, according to the lawsuit.

"Basically they alleged in the police report that he responded to a question and said he bought $15-worth of marijuana, but there's no mention of recovery of any marijuana in the police report," Godwin says. "Of course my client says that didn't happen."

Chappell's car was one of hundreds impounded by the Wayne County Sheriff's Office for visiting a medical marijuana dispensary.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office reported in 2016 that it surveilled 32 medical marijuana dispensaries, performed 634 investigatory stops of cars leaving dispensaries, and impounded 467 vehicles as part of Operation Push-Off, a local law enforcement initiative targeting drugs, prostitution, and drag racing funded by licensing fees collected from the state's medical marijuana program.

According to state reports, Wayne County law enforcement received $473,256 in Medical Marihuana Operation and Oversight Grants in fiscal year 2016 and $483,132 in 2017.

Chappell was then handed a notice that the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office intended to forfeit his car, unless he paid a $900 out-of-court settlement fee or filed a claim to contest the seizure within 20 days, along with a $250 bond. (The bond requirement has since been eliminated by the Michigan state legislature.)

The settlement offer is standard in forfeiture cases under Operation Push-Off.

"Our common practice is to offer to the claimant three choices: 1) contest, 2) redeem, or 3) relinquish (forfeit) their interest," a spokesperson for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office wrote in an email. "We leave the ultimate decision to the claimant. A redemption is a settlement short of going to trial since we are in the civil arena."

William Maze, a Detroit attorney who handles asset forfeiture cases, says Nichols' three-year wait for a hearing is an outlier. Most cases, he says, only take three to four months, but more problematic are the suspicionless seizures of cars made by police and out-of-court settlements offered by the prosecutor's office.

"The bigger issue with Wayne County forfeiture is—for drugs, prostitution and drag racing—they're seizing the vehicles on sometimes the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all, just the mere allegation that someone went to a drug house or dispensary," Maze says. "They don't find anything in the car or on the person, but they take the vehicle and offer to settle with the owner for $900. They set the number at $900 because they know it's low enough that the person can't afford to hire an attorney to fight it for that."

The Chappells decided to fight. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office waited 72 days to file a forfeiture complaint against Chappell's car under the Michigan Controlled Substances Act. It was not until February 2017, roughly seven months later, that a judge dismissed the complaint and ordered the police to return Chappell's car.

When Chappell finally got it back, the suit says, he "discovered that the driver's side window of the vehicle had been left down, the battery was dead, the tires were flat, that damage to the exhaust and transmissions systems had been caused and marks left on the undercarriage of the vehicle consistent with the vehicle having been lifted by a fork lift."

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—cars, cash, even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with or convicted of a crime.

Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by cutting off the flow of illicit proceeds. But civil liberties groups say the lack of due process protections for property owners and the perverse profit incentive created by asset forfeiture lead police to target everyday citizens instead of cartel kingpins.

As Reason reported, nearly 1,000 people in Michigan had property seized and forfeited last year without ever being charged with a crime.

The Michigan legislature is considering a bill that would require police and prosecutors to obtain a conviction before they could seize property. The bill is similar to legislation that in recent years essentially abolished civil asset forfeiture in Nebraska and New Mexico. Most U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform in the last five years or so based on bipartisan civil liberties concerns.

Settlement agreements like the ones in Wayne County are not unusual, but civil liberties advocates and even some state lawmakers have said they essentially amount to a shakedown. Before Albuquerque ended its asset forfeiture program, it would force owners, even innocent owners, to pay $850 to recover their cars. In Albuquerque resident Arlene Harjo's case, the city offered to return her car for $4,000 after her son was arrested for drunk driving. In Mississippi, a Reason investigation showed prosecutors would often settle with defendants, agreeing to charge them with lesser crimes in exchange for keeping their car. The IRS had a nasty habit of seizing small-business owners' bank accounts under obscure anti-money laundering laws, and then offering to drop criminal prosecution in exchange for a large chunk of the money.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Wayne County Corporation County, which represents county agencies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NEXT: Neil deGrasse Tyson: We Need a Space Force to Protect the Earth From Asteroids

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The legalized the dispensary, taxed it, and used the tax money to then steal the cars of the customers?

    what the actual fuck?

    1. Wood chippers. Feet first. Slowly.

      It's the only way the rest of them will learn.

      1. And film it and send it to the rest of them, with "You're next" at the nd.

    2. I think the technical term is chutzpah.

    3. Jeff Sessions would approve!!!

    4. We said you could buy it legally. We didn't say you could drive home with your legal purchase, did we?

  2. "town of Lincoln Park"

    Good band name.....wait.....I mean terrible band

  3. Wayne County and Lincoln Park are flat-out running an extortion scheme. And they're doing it shamelessly - just like you'd expect from somebody protected by qualified immunity.

    Are we still allowed to make wood chipper jokes? This would be a good place for one.........

  4. It's just one or two bad apples I'm sure, it's not like the government as a rule abuses the shit out of every bit of power they can get their grubby little paws on.

  5. The process is the punishment.

  6. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office reported in 2016 that it surveilled 32 medical marijuana dispensaries, performed 634 investigatory stops of cars leaving dispensaries, and impounded 467 vehicles as part of Operation Push-Off, a local law enforcement initiative targeting drugs, prostitution, and drag racing funded by licensing fees collected from the state's medical marijuana program.

    So, they let you go to these dispensaries legally but then have surveillance on them and pull you over to steal your vehicle when you leave. That' heck of a systematic entrapment machine they've constructed there. The fact it's paid for by the licensing fee's paid by the establishment they have surveillance on is...just wow levels of corruption.

    1. The fact it's paid for by the licensing fee's paid by the establishment they have surveillance on is...just wow levels of corruption.

      I'd label it "Kafkaesque", but I'm not sure Kafka ever came up with anything that fucked up.

  7. Under Michigan law, Stephen Nichols was supposed to get a "prompt" court hearing to challenge the forfeiture of his car...

    Or else what?

    1. Or else he doesn't - - - - - -

      1. or it could be "not prompt"?

  8. This is why I think we need another Gorsuch not another Roberts as in Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
    Maybe when that shriveled gash Ginsburg leaves we can see another Scalia/Gorsuch

    1. It will take a ruling as bold as Miranda, Brown or Obergefell to shut down this shitshow. Thomas is ready but I'm not hopeful. More likely Roberts will split a baby if we get anything at all.

    2. Amen! Thank the heavens we got even one Gorsuch on the court. If we had two, we might maintain our freedoms for another generation.

  9. At least the Michigan Libertarian Party has been able to pick up a lot of new memberships from these targeted people, right? Or do they continue to vote for the bozos who won't stop the racket?

    1. The Rethugglicans blame the DemonCraps and the DemonCraps blame the Rethugglicans...

      No one EVER considers a "third option" like the Michigan Libertarian Party... 'Cause that's throwing yer vote away!!!!

      1. Yeah! Nevermind that those "wasted" spoiler votes are the only ones that demonstrably bring about the repeal of bad laws...

      2. It's Wayne County. This is Democrats and nothing but Democrats. I don't mean to imply the Republicans would be better but they have zero control in Wayne County.

  10. If MSM devoted as much coverage to this story as they do Stormy Daniels this crap would end. If the Twitter hoardes cared about Stephen Nichols as much as they do Harvey Weinstein or John Schnatter the politicians would shut this down in a heartbeat. If Stephen Colbert did a comedic monologue on the subject there would be a groundswell of support for the victims of Wayne County. But the sad reality is that civil asset forfeiture has bipartisan support so unless you are personally victimized by these racketeers you probably won't even be aware it's even happening unless you accidentally end up on (Thanks Reason).

    1. Don't blame the media. Blame the US Justice Department. Federal prosecutors should be going after local cops who systematically violate the civil rights of US citizens. They could get multiple 10 year federal sentences for every officer involved in this con.

      1. True. However, the MSM can move the issue(s) to forefront of our collective minds and possibly facilitate change.

  11. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property?cars, cash, even houses?suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with or convicted of a crime.

    Still trying to find a way this is at all constitutional. Why aren't these "officials" charged with conspiracy to violate the
    constitutional rights of the theft victims?
    It is never a forfeiture; after a due process arrest, trial and conviction, it is a fine; and should be payable from any fund source the guilt chooses. Before ALL of that, it is armed robbery.

    Where is the ACLU?

    1. Preparing anti hate speech lawsuits, apparently.

  12. While asset forfeiture is the "big ticket" item, it's actually part of another problem: "profit"-making law enforcement.

    Law enforcement should *never* make a profit for the state, city, county, police department, court or any other government entity. Why? Because when law enforcement makes money, there is a strong temptation to enforce bad laws, to generate enforcement on weak (or no) evidence, etc.

    Every law enforcement should cost the government money. Maybe not as much as they spent on enforcing the law, but it should always be a loss item. That way, the government will save its enforcement efforts for the really important stuff -- either major crimes, or minor crimes that really bother people(*). When government makes money off enforcement, you get stuff like these Michigan car seizures. Or speed traps.

    I actually would favor a constitutional amendment to this effect.

    (*) I'm thinking of stuff like repeated loud parties that generate a lot of calls, or streetwalking prostitution that results in ordinary women being accosted. (I think prostitution should be legal, but perhaps street prostitutes should be required to wear a distinctive item of clothing -- and NO, I don't mean something that makes them look nonsexy.)

    1. Like a scarlet "A"? How about a gold Star?

  13. But... BOTH looter parties swear that asset-forfeiture takings are good, honest, ethical, financially sound and economically stabilizing. That's the consensus, settled science, and government's own Truth! Besides, somebody has to be sacrificed, right?

  14. So messed up on several levels of fuckedupness.

  15. Oh, Wayne County Officials declined to comment? Well, that's because THEY are the crooks, THEY are the criminals. What could they possibly say that anyone would believe? They are low-lifes, thieves, liars, and ass-wipes.

  16. "The Wayne County Prosecutor's declined to comment on the lawsuit."

    Thieving cowards.

  17. I am an attorney who has experience trying to get back seized and "forfeited" property in Wayne County, which includes Detroit. In vehicle cases, if the person wants to get the vehicle back anytime in the next year or two, they have to buy it back, by taking the settlement offer (which normally does not include the ridiculous towing and storage charges that the tow companies well-connected enough to get the contracts are allowed to charge). State law MCL 333.7523 says that the court proceedings to declare property forfeited must be filed "promptly" by the prosecutor's office, but I have never yet seen it done promptly. And, to have them initiate proceedings is not the same as to get your day in court.

    In one recent case of a police seizure of money out of a man's pocket, I timely filed the claim over a month ago, and as usual they told me that they will file a court action in 2 to 4 months after the claim. The reason for the seizure: alleged gambling. In a city with 3 casinos, and hundreds of lottery machines cranking out tickets hour after hour. They sell lottery tickets at the little store inside the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. The right to maintain the monopoly on gambling is so important that my client can have his own money taken directly out of his pocket without actually being charged with any crime, because there is no evidence of the "crime" of gambling, because if there were, he would have been arrested or at least ticketed, and he wasn't.

  18. Until the judiciary decides to get genuinely feisty toward the other two branches, we're just going to see more of this.

  19. Local government shakedowns. There are criminals in charge, and corruption in government. Will the State or Feds do anything about this abuse? That they don't isn't good. It'll probably take some lawyers making a big stink about it, and the media cooperating. At least Reason and The Detroit News are reporting it.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.