6th Circuit: Wayne County vehicle seizure program unconstitutional

A Wayne County vehicle seizure program violated the constitutional rights of people whose cars it took, according to a new ruling from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The ruling stemmed from a 2020 lawsuit. It pointed out that police would often seize people’s vehicles, allegedly for connections to crime or nuisance abatement purposes, without ever actually charging them with a crime—or even initiating the civil forfeiture process.

It could take months to get a hearing before a judge. In the meantime, people could get their cars back by paying fees starting at $900, plus towing and storage fees. Subsequent seizures cost even more.

Wesley Hottot is an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit. He called the program a “ransom system.”

“So as the Sixth Circuit observed, this isn’t a public safety measure,” Hottot said. “It’s a revenue-raising measure, and it’s one that tends to fall on the least fortunate in society.”

“We agree and hold that Wayne County 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 Sixth Circuit wrote in its opinion. “We further hold that Wayne County was required to provide an interim hearing within two weeks to test the probable validity of the deprivation.”

“The government’s interest here is anything but weighty,” the Court added. “Although Wayne County ostensibly seized the vehicles because of reasons related to health, safety, and/or drugs, the record suggests otherwise—that the county seized the vehicles in order to obtain proceeds from fees.”

“The Constitution requires the government to provide prompt process before depriving someone of life, liberty, or property. Normally, that means a hearing. But Wayne County, Michigan hasn’t followed that simple requirement.”

“Wayne County claims that it seizes cars to fight crime (and holds onto them for months for the same reason),” Judge Amul Thapar wrote in a concurring opinion. “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.

“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.”

The Sixth Circuit ruling addressed only a portion of the case. Now, barring an appeal from Wayne County, the case will be returned to U.S. District Court in Detroit to decide the remainder of the issues the plaintiffs raised. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hottot said larger implications are in play here. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the upcoming term in Culley v. Marshall, a case in which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that vehicle owners have no right to a prompt, post-seizure hearing. Multiple other U.S. Appeals courts, including now the Sixth, have issued the opposite ruling.

“So the Sixth Circuit’s opinion now stands next term to influence what happens at the Supreme Court,” Hottot said.

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