A Michigan couple says their town seized a building they owned and then demanded that they buy two cars for the police department to get their own property back.
The case, first reported by WXYZ Detroit, began in December of 2020 when the mayor of Highland Park and the police chief dropped by a 13,000-square-foot building owned by Justyna and Matt Kozbial for an impromptu fire code inspection.
The city officials found a marijuana grow operation inside. The Kozbials, immigrants from Poland, say they had a state license to grow medical marijuana, but the city seized the building anyway and held on to it for 17 months without charging them with a crime.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can legally seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity like drug trafficking, whether or not the owner has been charged with a crime. But not only were the Kozbials never charged with a crime, police never alleged there was any major criminal activity.
In a response to an interrogatory filed in the Kozbials' subsequent lawsuit against Highland Park, a city police officer answered "none" when asked to identify any predicate felony offenses justifying the seizure.
Things then took a highly unusual turn when the Kozbials say they received a settlement offer from the town: Stop growing marijuana and buy two vehicles for the local police department.
A February 24, 2021, email provided to Reason by the Kozbials' attorney, Marc Deldin, shows that a Highland Park police officer, ferrying a message from city attorney Terry Ford, sent the Kozbials quotes for two cars from a local Ford dealership, totaling about $70,000.
Civil liberties groups often criticize civil forfeiture for creating a perverse profit incentive for police and local governments, since forfeiture revenues often go straight into their budgets, but it's practically unheard of to see such an overt shakedown put into emails and court documents.
"Extortion, there's no other way to explain it," Deldin says.
"This is really policing for profit, because instead of finding a crime, pressing charges, and allowing the forfeiture process to work out, they just went and seized the building and said, 'Give us two cop cars,'" Deldin tells Reason. "There was no crime, and there was no forfeiture process. The goal was never to forfeit this property because Highland Park wouldn't receive anything. The goal was to extort my client into providing squad cars."
Law enforcement groups say civil forfeiture is an essential tool to disrupt organized drug trafficking. However, civil liberties groups say the practice is unfairly tilted against owners, who often bear the burden of proving their innocence and fighting in court for months, sometimes years, to try and win back their own property.
Wayne County, where Highland Park is located, has an aggressive asset forfeiture program, particularly for cars. It seized more than 2,600 vehicles between 2017 and 2019, 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.
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.)
Deldin says, though, that the Kozbials' forfeiture case was never properly routed through the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office did not immediately return a request for comment. In a statement to WXYZ Detroit, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office said it was not aware that the city was negotiating its own settlement.
Today, a day after WXYZ Detroit reported on the fiasco, Highland Park informed the Kozbials that it would be giving them back their building. Their lawsuit is still ongoing.
"How many other people in Highland Park have they done this to?" Deldin wonders. "My clients are fortunate enough to have their resources to come and hire me. They're paying me to fight for their rights, but this is expensive. How many people in Highland Park didn't put up a fight?"
Highland Park city attorney Terry Ford did not immediately return a request for comment.