A federal appeals court has dealt a welcome victory to vehicle owners and a scathing rebuke to Detroit's asset forfeiture racket.
A panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit unanimously ruled in late August that Detroit's practice of seizing people's cars for months at a time before giving them a chance to contest the seizure violates vehicle owners' 14th Amendment right to due process. The panel found that Michigan's Wayne County, which includes Detroit, "violated that Constitution when it seized plaintiffs' personal vehicles—which were vital to their transportation and livelihoods—with no timely process to contest the seizure."
The 6th Circuit ruled that Wayne County must provide car owners a post-seizure court hearing within two weeks.
The ruling is the latest development in a series of lawsuits arguing that Wayne County uses civil asset forfeiture to seize cars and then forces owners to pay a $900 settlement fee, plus towing and storage fees, to get them back—or wait months, even years, for a court hearing.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed a class-action lawsuit in 2020 on behalf of three Wayne County residents whose cars were seized for crimes they were either acquitted of or never charged with, arguing that the shakedown violated their Fourth, Eighth, and 14th Amendment rights.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not charged with a crime. Law enforcement says civil asset forfeiture is used to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting illicit revenue. But Wayne County was using its less fortunate residents as a piggy bank.
In a concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar wrote that Wayne County's scheme "is simply a money-making venture—one most often used to extort money from those who can least afford it."
Wayne County seized over 2,600 vehicles between 2017 and 2019 and raked 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 seizures, 473 were not accompanied by a criminal conviction. In 438 of those cases, no one was even charged with a crime.
After summarizing the experiences of the three plaintiffs, Thapar asked: "Does this sound like a legitimate way of cleaning up Wayne County? Or does it sound like a money-making scheme that preys on those least able to fight it? To ask the question is to answer it."