On August 31 the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down as unconstitutional the practice of vehicle forfeiture in Wayne County, Michigan, in which Detroit sits.
The decision, available here, declares the practice of seizing vehicles and subsequently taking months to decide whether to proceed with forfeiture violates citizen protections under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court instead insisted that the county should offer prompt hearings within two weeks of the cars being seized.
The opinion notes, “Regardless of the owner’s innocence, Wayne County impounds the vehicles and its contents until the owner pays a redemption fee. This fee is $900 for the first seizure, $1,800 for the second, and $2,700 for the third, not including other fees for towing and storage.” Sadly, this is not surprising. In our recent essay on local civil asset reform, we point out that the practice of seizing assets is often expensive, often preys on the poor and often requires more in legal fees than the asset may be worth.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Amul Thapar wrote, “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.” Thapar continued,
Wayne County claims that it seizes cars to fight crime (and holds onto them for months for the same reason). But the County is happy to return those very cars as soon as it gets paid. That practice proves the County’s scheme is simply a money-making venture — one most often used to extort money from those who can least afford it.
The Detroit Free Press coverage of the ruling tells the stories of the three plaintiffs involved in this case. But as the BCP report on Civil Asset Forfeiture makes clear, the abuses extend well beyond Motor City.