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‘Money-making scheme’: Appeals court likens vehicle forfeiture program to extortion


Melisa Ingram and Robert Reeves are two of three plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Wayne County, Michigan, that claims their due process rights were violated because the county held their seized vehicles for months. On Aug. 31, the U.S. Sixth District of Appeals ruled that their rights were violated. (Courtesy of Institute of Justice)

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a unanimous ruling said that a vehicle forfeiture program in Wayne County, Michigan – home to Detroit – violated the due process rights of three people who had their cars impounded by police, which left them without a mode of transportation.

The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit in 2020 against Wayne County, which would sometimes hold vehicles seized in alleged crimes for four to six months, and sometimes longer, without the opportunity for a hearing to challenge the forfeiture.

“Does this sound like a legitimate way of cleaning up Wayne County?” said Judge Amul Thapar in a concurring opinion. “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.”

The court said the county should be having hearings within two weeks of the seizure.

One of the plaintiffs, Melisa Ingram, let her then-boyfriend borrow her car only for him to get busted soliciting a prostitute. The police seized his car, and when Ingram went to try to get it back, Wayne County officials told her she’d have to wait four months for a hearing. In order for her to get her car back right away, she ended up paying $1,355, the lawsuit said.

Ingram let her boyfriend borrow her car again several months later and cops pulled him over again, claiming the house he went to was linked to drugs and prostitution. The car was seized again. The cost of the “redemption fee” this time? $1,800. She couldn’t afford to pay for it and she lost her car.

“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,” Thapar wrote.

Another plaintiff, Robert Reeves, said his car was seized and held for over six months. Like Ingram, he was never accused of committing a crime. A co-worker allegedly stole a piece of equipment from Home Depot. Despite Reeves not knowing about the theft, he was still arrested and his car seized, the lawsuit said. He only got his car back after the lawsuit was filed.

The ruling, issued Aug. 31, felt like vindication to him.

“Because of today’s ruling, the next person the County targets will have a real opportunity to go to court and challenge the seizure of their car. And they won’t have to wait months or years to get it,” Reeves said in a press release issued by the Institute of Justice.

The case now goes back to the Eastern District of Michigan to address other claims in the lawsuit.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy told the Detroit Free Press that her office is determining what to do next in light of the ruling.

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