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Civil forfeiture

I was innocent, but police seized my car and stalled for years. Their scheme has to stop.

Law enforcement agencies grab cash, cars and valuables and stall to weaken resistance. The result can be lopsided settlements for the government, but the Supreme Court has a chance to restore balance.

Stephanie Wilson
Opinion contributor

Single moms like me sometimes must multitask to make things work. I had an especially hectic morning on June 24, 2019, but was managing fine until sheriff’s deputies stopped me on my way to nursing school in Wayne County, Michigan. 

They did not arrest me, accuse me of wrongdoing or issue a citation. Yet they seized my car and left me stranded 15 miles from home. 

What followed was more than two years of delay with no chance to see a judge. The Wayne County Attorney’s Office gave me only one option to reclaim my vehicle: Settle out of court and pay $1,800 plus towing and storage fees. 

Many people face ultimatums like this. Just in Wayne County during a recent two-year span, law enforcement agencies seized more than 2,600 vehicles and ransomed them back to their owners for more than $1.2 million. 

Similar moneymaking schemes occur nationwide. Law enforcement agencies grab cash, cars and other valuables and then stall to weaken resistance. The result can be lopsided settlements for the government, but the U.S. Supreme Court has a chance to restore balance. 

My only offense: being in the 'wrong neighborhood'

Culley v. Marshall, scheduled for oral arguments on Oct. 30, involves innocent vehicle owners from Alabama. The police seized their cars and blocked them from seeing a judge for several months. 

My case provides hope for a favorable ruling. The ordeal started after I dropped off my son at school. I was preparing to head out the door for my own school, when a friend called and asked for a ride to his mother’s house. I picked him up at a Detroit gas station and told him I could drive him where he needed to go after my class. But I never made it that far. 

Stephanie Wilson holds a photo of her vehicle, which police seized in 2019.

Deputies in an unmarked car stopped us almost immediately. They accused my friend, the father of my child, of possessing drugs. A search produced no illegal substances, so the police released him with no arrest

They accused me of nothing. I do not do drugs and have never helped anyone buy, sell or conceal drugs. My only offense, one deputy told me, was being in the “wrong neighborhood.” 

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As punishment, the police took my car and everything inside, including my son’s booster seat and soccer gear. Then they drove off, leaving me on a street they had just told me was dangerous. They would not even point me to the nearest bus stop. “Figure it out,” one deputy said. 

Friends and family were skeptical when I explained what happened. My dad thought the whole thing must be a misunderstanding. The police do not take property for no reason, he assured me. Yet this is too often the reality of a law enforcement maneuver called “civil forfeiture.” 

Supreme Court can change civil forfeiture for good

Arrest and prosecution are optional. Using civil forfeiture, agencies can take and keep property based on mere speculation of criminal activity. Bureaucratic hassle helps them get the results they want. As weeks turn into months, property owners grow weary. 

I know the pain firsthand. While my car sat in an impound lot, I could not drive my son to school or take him to medical appointments. I could not get myself to classes at Wayne County Community College, where I was studying nursing. I missed an entire semester. At one point I rented a U-Haul truck, the cheapest transportation I could find. Other times, I begged family and friends for rides. 

The more I suffered, the more the county gained leverage. But rather than settle, I joined other Michigan property owners in a federal lawsuit like the Alabama case. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, represents us. 

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One victory came in 2021, when I finally got my car back – albeit with rotted tires and rust. A second victory came on Aug. 31, when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Wayne County must grant pretrial hearings within two weeks of seizure. Other victories could come as the case proceeds in federal district court. 

The Supreme Court provides another avenue for hope. If the Alabama vehicle owners prevail, the result could be prompt post-seizure hearings in all civil forfeiture proceedings nationwide. I attached my name to a friend-of-the-court brief in Culley because the facts hit so close to home. 

Civil forfeiture has many built-in problems. Allowing law enforcement agencies to use delay as a weapon is just the beginning. If the government wants to take and keep property, the least it can do is give people access to neutral decisionmakers. 

Life is already hectic enough without the loss of due process. 

Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson is a nursing student who lives in Taylor, Michigan.

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