Civil Asset Forfeiture

Wayne County Cops Seized Her Car Over $10 Worth of Weed. Now She's Suing.

The lawsuit argues that the excessive penalty violated her Eighth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court is currently considering a similar case.


Junfu Han/TNS/Newscom

A Detroit woman is suing Wayne County, Michigan, after police seized her car for possession of $10 worth of marijuana under the state's civil asset forfeiture laws.

Crystal Sisson alleges in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday that she was pulled over by Wayne County Sheriff's deputies this July after they surveilled her going into a Detroit medical marijuana dispensary, where she had bought a small amount of marijuana for $10. After discovering the marijuana, which is decriminalized in Detroit, the sheriff's deputies cited her for "illegally occupying a place where controlled substances are sold" and seized her 2015 Kia Soul.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity. Law enforcement groups say it is a vital tool for disrupting organized drug trafficking and other crimes, but civil liberties groups say it has too few protections for innocent property owners and far too many perverse profit incentives for police and prosecutors.

To get her car back, Sisson had to pay the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office $1,200 to settle the forfeiture case, a typical practice in the county. Sisson's lawsuit, however, argues that the seizure and settlement was unconstitutionally excessive.

"Because the City of Detroit had decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and Sisson purchased a small amount of marijuana from a medical marijuana dispensary that Wayne County allowed to operate, the forfeiture of Sisson's vehicle and/or the $1,200 settlement for the forfeiture action is an excessive penalty in violation of Plaintiff's constitutionally protected Eighth Amendment rights," the lawsuit says.

Sisson's suit is notable because the Supreme Court is currently considering a similar asset forfeiture case, Timbs v. Indiana, that revolves around the case of Tyson Timbs, whose Land Rover, worth $41,000, was seized after he sold two grams of heroin to an undercover officer. Court watchers strongly suspect the Supreme Court will incorporate the Eighth Amendment, making the Excessive Fines clause apply to states.

Sisson is only one of hundreds of Wayne County residents who've been surveilled, pulled over, had their car seized, and been forced to pay out more than $1,000 to get it back, all for visiting legal, state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.

Three Detroit-area residents filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Wayne County this July for its asset forfeiture program. One of the plaintiffs, Stephen Nichols, had been waiting three years for a court hearing after his car was seized. The other two plaintiffs, like Sisson, allege their car was seized after visiting a medical marijuana dispensary. As Reason reported:

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.


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 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. Essentially, Michigan requires Wayne County medical marijuana dispensaries to pay Wayne County cops, who then rob and extort the dispensaries' customers. The mafia offers a better deal.

Of course, Michigan voters legalized recreational marijuana this November, so Wayne County cops will have to find another asset forfeiture cookie jar.

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  1. Asset Forfeiture is unconstitutional, period.

    1. “Civil” and “in rem” forfeiture, yes.

  2. >>>so Wayne County cops will have to find another asset forfeiture cookie jar.

    took this lady’s car over a parking ticket – wtf is “illegally occupying space”?

  3. I really don’t see how anyone who would call themselves a citizen of the United States would let this behavior continue. This is blatant theft. Banana republic shake down bullshit.

    1. This is the inevitable consequence of decades worth of Drug War nonsense.


      1. It’s also the inevitable consequence of a long history of congressional and judicial deference to the executive branch, together with unconscionably long delays and outrageous cost to plaintiffs in resolving lawsuits against police.

  4. What happens if you WALK up to the pot dispensary? Go barefoot just in case they want to confiscate your shoes!

    Do they confiscate your body, and sell it for organs?

    1. Try not to give them any new ideas.

      1. Seriously.

    2. Cops love that old timey music at the baseball stadium

  5. Cross reference this post with the article about your right to self defense against state agents.

    1. Agreed. Cops aren’t gonna stop doing this until they realize there’s a good chance that angry property owners will hunt them down after the fact. I don’t smoke cigarettes, let alone pot, but Lord knows I need my car for work, and I can’t afford the time or money to fight the government in court, especially when the deck’s stacked against me like it is in so many of these civil asset forfeiture cases.

  6. If she has a medical card how was her action illegal?

    1. 38-11-22 is about drug paraphernalia not occupying a place where drugs are sold.

      1. The correct ordinance is 38-11-6.

        A person shall not knowingly remain in any building, apartment, store, automobile, boat, boathouse, airplane, or any other place where any controlled substance is illegally sold, dispensed, furnished, given away, stored, or kept with the intent to unlawfully use or possess such controlled substance.

        If she has a card and the dispensary is legal how does that even apply?

        1. It shouldn’t, but as we know, the police make their own rules, and most of the time judges just go along with it.

        2. The legal logic is baffling.

        3. Hmm, I’d like to see some officers of the court exit an airplane, or maybe a boat, as soon as they realize somebody stashed some pot aboard.

          1. Preferably at high altitude.

        4. It’s possible that she bought it legally and hung out hoping to resell to a kid who didn’t have a card.
          Still excessive, but Reason doesn’t often tell the whole story.

  7. And, of course, Wayne County is firmly Democrat.

  8. That’s Illegal AF! How am I supposed to respect the law? When the “law” is no different than common …Thieves?!!

  9. She bought pot illegally and had been doing it for quite some time. Tough shit.

    1. No. Seriously. Are you actually going to defend this on the grounds that she was breaking a law the majority of people polled want changed? The War On Drugs is a particularly smelly concatenation of authoritarian bovine excreta, but even for THAT the laws against marijuana are singularly stupid. A brainstorm of FDR’s, they were passed as a ‘tax’ to get around the fact that the government was still trying to recover from the fallout from banning the sale of alcohol, and had had to pass a Constitutional Amendment to get INTO that mass and another to get out again. There is some evidence that it was passed as a ‘full employment for Prohibition Enforcement Stooges’ measure, and to GET it passed Congress was treated to a blizzard of the kind of ‘We gotta keep them goddamned niggers in line’ swill one usually sees only at such County fairs as can’t come up with some way to keep the Kluxers out (or in the dirtier corners of the internet).

      The Law in question is dung.

    2. Where is the evidence for that statement, Toddster?

  10. What a racket. Why won’t the courts remedy this situation.

  11. If you were walking would they take your shoes?

  12. Civil rights violations?

    Why aren’t they being charged with grand theft auto?

  13. Law enforcement groups say it is a vital tool for disrupting organized drug trafficking and other crimes…

    Such as buying ten dollars worth of something that isn’t illegal?

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  15. Seems like the existing law needs to be eliminated, elimination taking place RDN, otherwise read as Right Damned Now.

  16. There unfortunately are times when government needs to be slapped down, and slapped down hard. This appears to be one of the above mentioned times.

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