Civil Asset Forfeiture

Class-Action Lawsuit Challenges Detroit's Asset Forfeiture Racket

The lawsuit says Wayne County police stop and seize cars simply for entering or leaving certain areas.


Police twice seized 50-year-old Detroit resident Melisa Ingram's car for alleged crimes she was never suspected of committing. In fact, no one was charged with a crime at all. Nevertheless, the local prosecutor demanded Ingram pay thousands of dollars to get her vehicle back, or else the county would keep it under civil asset forfeiture laws.

Ingram is now a lead plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday against Wayne County, Michigan—which includes Detroit—by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm. The suit claims that the county seizes cars "simply because they are driven into, or out of, an area subjectively known for having some generalized association with crime," and that the county forces owners through a months-long, onerous process to challenge a seizure, violating their Fourth, Eighth, and 14th Amendment rights.

According to the lawsuit, Ingram loaned her now-former boyfriend her car in late 2018 so he could look for a job. But rather than go job-hunting, the boyfriend was detained by police for allegedly picking up a prostitute. He wasn't charged with a crime, but Wayne County Sheriff's deputies seized Ingram's 2017 Ford Fusion and issued a notice that the county intended to keep it under civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow police and prosecutors to seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity. Ingram had to pay the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office a $1,355 "redemption fee" ($900 plus towing and storage fees) to get her car back.

Last summer, Ingram loaned her car to her boyfriend again so he could drive to a friend's barbecue. This time, police pulled him over after he left a house that police said was connected to prostitution and/or drug activity. Again, no one was charged with a crime, but the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office demanded another settlement payment from Ingram. This time she didn't have it. She initiated bankruptcy proceedings and relinquished interest in her car.

"My car was very important to me and now my life has been turned upside down," Ingram said in a press release. "Everything suffers when you don't have a car, especially in a city like Detroit. I've been late to work and missed doctor's appointments because I don't have a way to get there. No one should have to go through what I've gone through."

Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other crimes by targeting their illicit proceeds. However, civil liberties advocates like the Institute for Justice, which has successfully challenged forfeiture practices in cities such as Philadelphia and Albuquerque, argue there are too few protections for innocent property owners and too many perverse profit incentives for police.

The Institute for Justice is not the first to allege that Wayne County prosecutors and police abuse civil forfeiture and make it nearly impossible for owners to get their cars back. In 2018, Stephen Nichols filed a class-action lawsuit after waiting more than three years for a court hearing to challenge the seizure of his car. 

That same year, Crystal Sisson filed a civil rights lawsuit after Wayne County Sheriff's deputies seized her 2015 Kia Soul because she allegedly possessed $10 worth of marijuana.

More than half of all U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past decade in response to these concerns, but Wayne County continues to run a particularly aggressive forfeiture operation as part of Operation Push-Off—a local law enforcement campaign that targets drugs and prostitution by surveilling high-crime areas and marijuana dispensaries.

Wayne County seized more than 2,600 vehicles over the past two years, raking in more than $1.2 million in asset forfeiture revenues, according to public records obtained by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market Michigan think tank.

Of those, 473 were not accompanied by a criminal conviction, and in 438 of those cases, no one was even charged with a crime. In 10 cases, the cars were seized under suspicion of a drug violation, even though the records say police didn't find any drugs.

"The vehicles are worth very little, typically around $1,000 or $2,000," Mackinac Center researcher Jarrett Skorup told Reason. "These are very likely low-income people, people that can't afford to sit around without a vehicle for three weeks or afford an attorney to go challenge it."

The other named plaintiff in the Institute for Justice's lawsuit is 29-year-old construction worker Robert Reeves. Last July, Reeves had his 1991 Chevrolet Camaro, along with more than $2,000 in cash, seized after police stopped him on suspicion of stealing a skid steer from Home Depot. Reeves was never arrested or charged with a crime, and the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has yet to file a notice of intent to forfeit his car, meaning he hasn't been able to officially challenge it.

Wayne County prosecutors typically offer to settle such forfeiture cases and return the owner's car for a $900 payment, plus towing and storage fees. (You can see one such forfeiture notice here.)

The Institute for Justice argues says these settlement offers, combined with the lengthy and costly process of challenging a forfeiture, amount to a shakedown.

"Detroit's forfeiture program is less like a justice system and more like having your car stolen and paying a ransom to get it back," Institute for Justice attorney Wesley Hottot said in a press release. "Once police seize a car, there is no judge or jury. Instead, prosecutors give owners a choice. They can either pay the city's ransom or hire an attorney and enter a byzantine process that is confusing, time-consuming, and expensive. The process is designed to ensure that owners fail nearly every time. I've watched this happen time and time again, and never once have I seen an owner successfully make it to court and get his or her car back."

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NEXT: A Tennessee County Destroyed Hundreds of Records Requested by a Local Newspaper

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  1. Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other crimes by targeting their illicit proceeds.

    C.J., please name these groups.

    1. All of which demonstrates the futility of all the other Drug War tactics. They aren’t getting anywhere, so they have to seize the assets of random citizens in the hopes of inconveniencing a drug dealer of two.


      The War on Drugs is a sham. End it.

  2. Melisa really really really needs to dump that boyfriend.

    1. Maybe but with definitive evidence like “and/or”, it’s hard to say that she should trust the City’s word, especially after they robbed her car.

    2. Melisa really really really needs to dump that local bunch of thugs that call themselves Government Almighty! Sad to say, Government Almighty presses itself onto us like a bunch of voracious rapists (which they are, actually).

      Go IJ go!!! IJ is my fave charity!

    3. I assume the words “now former” mean that she already has.

      1. Missed it.

  3. Interesting these sorts of things don’t happen as often where ordinary citizens have and exercise a right to bear arms.

    1. Not really. The IJ’s bottom 11 rankings below for the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the country. At a glance seems like a pretty mixed bag between gun havens and gun grabbers.

      New Jersey D-
      Ohio D-
      Oklahoma D-
      Pennsylvania D-
      South Dakota D-
      Virginia D-
      West Virginia D-
      Wyoming D-
      Federal Government D-
      Massachusetts F
      North Dakota F

      1. So soviet socialist states and national socialist states agree on looting at gunpoint even if they sometimes disagree on the virtue of Kristallnacht gun laws? Will wonders never cease?

      2. Lots of people in government like to have some law for which they can arrest, harass, take their stuff, or otherwise harass whoever they want. They feel so superior and wield their power, like Loretta Lynch who also strongly supports civil asset forfeiture. That’s partly why there’s so many laws around the world allowing the government to jail people for mere speech as the government interprets it.

        It’s all immoral and an abuse of power. But that’s government – as libertarians know. It’s a necessary evil, and evil it usually is because evil people are drawn to government jobs because of the power they get, and the ability to extract wealth from their targets.

    2. Lol

      This is Detroit.

      Everybody has a gun.

      Not a matter of that. You are not going to shoot somebody at the impound lot over a Ford Fusion.

      1. Doesn’t everyone get those free at work there?

        1. You tell me.

  4. C.J.,
    Is Eric your brother?

  5. Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other crimes by targeting their illicit proceeds.

    Do the same groups say beating a confession out of the first suspect they find is a good idea because it leads to more confessions?

  6. I would think she wouldn’t dare lend her car to her boyfriend a second time.

  7. “Way up north in the land of auto’s where the homes are rat infested and streets smell like gallows..”

    1. Up here in the north land 9 is 5 and 6 is 4.

      Autos are homes in Caliland so reach up and grab an orange. In a week or two they’ll make you a star.

      Then again Dionne Warwick had the chops to pull it off.

  8. These looting victims in Detroit… how many votes did they cast for libertarian candidates?

  9. Wayne County and Detroit are so desperate for cash. Corruption is rampant. In the 80’s Colman Young was using the police to protect his favored drug pushers. Gil Hill covered up murders for them. Kym Worthy is the county prosecutor and a former Young acolyte.

    1. So Wayne County government is corrupt?


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  13. It’s not even just that they take things from people who have never committed any crimes or even been charged with crimes. Even criminals have rights and the punishment is supposed to be proportionate to the crime. Say you break into someone’s house, steal a bunch of valuables, drive home in your car and store the stolen goods somewhere in your house. Even if you think making drugs, prostitution etc crimes is wrong, almost everyone agrees that theft is a crime, and a perpetrator should be apprehended and punished, probably locked in prison for a while if it’s more than a minor theft. But does that mean the government should get to take his car? His house? Go to jail, sure. Return what was stolen and/or pay restitution to victims, sure. Pay a fine if that’s what’s been determined to be the appropriate punishment for that level of crime, why not. But just take all his property because he happened to transport or store his ill-gotten gains in it seems absurd. Sure, technically those items were used to help commit a crime, but by that measure, practically anything you own could be forfeited. You carried your tools or your illegal goods in your pants, those are a tool of crime, better seize them. Heck, you couldn’t commit crimes very well if you were walking around naked, better take your entire wardrobe. Did you call another criminal with your phone, better take that. Did you do any research on committing crimes with your computer, better take that. Do you have any money in your bank account? Well money is fungible, so there’s no way to distinguish between legally earned and illegally earned money, so better take it all. (Well there are some ways, but that takes effort and the information will be limited) . Does your dog’s barking warn you if someone, like a police officer is coming, better take that. Could your toothbrush have been bought using the proceeds of illegal activity? Better take that. It’s absurd.

    Of course people do pay fines for criminal acts, but forfeiture isn’t based on an amount of fine written into the law, but on how much easily convertible property you have, so the penalty will be hugely variable and not based at all on the actual crime. That’s not any kind of equality under the law. Nor does it make sense that a crime that a crime that might result in a fine or other minor punishment can also result in you losing your car or even your house. No kind of proportionate penalty there.

    And as has been frequently pointed out, cops defense of the practice is that it helps them to go after criminals. But of course giving the cops any kind of power makes it easier for them to go after criminals. If they could search people’s homes without warrants it would be easier, if they could throw people in jail without a trial it would be easier, if they could beat confessions out of people it would be easier, if they could just shoot people on the street that they considered criminals it would be easier. That’s not a good reason for taking away people’s rights. Particularly since they do it so often to innocent people. Not that there’s any difference in principle, in fact that’s the reason for the principle, but they can’t even claim that even if it violates some principle of justice, from a utilitarian perspective it’s only hurting bad people.

    * I’d like to say actually everyone, but there’s no doubt somebody who’d say there should be no private property or if there is criminals shouldn’t be punished even for genuine crimes or thieves should be stopped but not by any kind of government law enforcement or judicial action because no government should exist.

  14. No one has yet commented on “Ciaramella”? That you Eric?

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  16. As long as there is a profit incentive attached to Civil Asset Forfeiture then corruptible politicians, and in particular Corrupt and Corrupted Police Departments will abuse the law.
    Take the profit out of CAF for local and state agencies and the incentive for abuse disappears.
    Change the law so that any CAF proceedings can ~only~ be used to pay on the National Debt and see how quickly the abuses cease.

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