Supreme Court Makes It Harder For State To Confiscate Property


Wayne County Leads the State in Seizures “It’s Like Legalized Carjacking”

In an important civil rights victory, last week, the Supreme Court moved to curb government seizure of property. The justices unanimously expand-ed constitutional protection for people beset by the imposition of “excessive fines” known as civil assets forfeiture.

The ruling, in an Indiana case, will permit citizens to more aggressively block asset forfeiture and other revenue-raising police tactics.

It was a Supreme Court decision particularly welcomed by civil rights and civil liberties groups and activist in minority communities since they were the ones most likely to be victims of this law which is a remnant of the “Black Codes” laws written by white legislators following the Emancipation Proclamation to keep African Americans oppressed and victims of the carceral state. In fact, during the Obama Administration the Department of Justice found it to be a major weapon used by police and the court system in Ferguson to persecute its black citizens while raising reve-nue for the police department and local court system.As the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. noted, in the case known as Timbs v. Indiana, the Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines and fees applies to the states as well as the federal government. LDF filed an amicus brief in the case making clear that historically, states used criminal fines as a way to force Black people into indentured servitude, and that communities of color are still disproportionately subject to criminal fines and forfeitures.

Daniel Harawa, Assistant Counsel at LDF, said in a statement:

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs rightly extends the Eighth Amendment’s protections against excessive ents. The Court’s decision builds upon the argument raised in our brief by pointing to the historic use of criminal fines to enforce a racial hierarchy and compel Black Americans into indentured servitude. This ruling also places important constitutional limitations on ram-pant asset forfeiture abuses at the state level, which disproportionately target communities of color to this day.”

According to news reports in the Indiana case, Mr. Timbs used an inherited life insurance policy to purchase a $42,000 Land Rover. He was later arrested and convicted of drug dealing. His criminal sentence carried a maximum fine of $10,000, but he ended up only paying $1,200 in fines. Despite the value of the vehicle exceeding this maximum amount, and the man showing how he was able to purchase it with funds that were not connected to his criminal activity, law enforcement officials took ownership of his vehicle anyway. The court ruled that this was grossly disproportion-ate to his offense and violated the Eighth Amendment.

Jarrett Skorup, director of marketing communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and who has written extensively on the issue said Supreme Court opinion should help those fight-ing for a change in Michigan law which law currently allows for law enforcement officials to seize and take ownership of property without charging anyone with criminal activity. In fact, the first legislative bill introduced in the House in this year; Bills 4001 and 4002, would re-quire a criminal conviction before property with a value of less than $50,000 can be permanently seized through civil forfeiture. Laws would also be tightened for forfeiture of more valuable property.

Which, if eventually passed, should come as a relief to Wayne County residents in particular. Skorup noted that law enforcement officials in Wayne County have a notorious reputation for pulling people over in areas of known drug use or as they leave medical marijuana facilities or for simply accusing them of solicitation or even driving without insur-ance, and then proceeding to seize their vehicle. They then charging them $900 to get them back or force them to fight these seizures in courtoften without being formally charged with a crime.

He said nearly 400 people in Wayne County last year who were never charged with a crime still lost property to law enforcement agencies last year through civil asset forfeiture. That exceeded the rest of the state’s counties combined.

“In Michigan it is used 6,000-7,000 times year and takes in about $15-$20 million a year for law enforcement,” he said. “Most of the time law enforcement forfeits the property before they get a conviction. So, they take ownership of it, keep the cash, or car, or home or sells it before the conviction. And the money stays with the local law enforcement agency that seizes it.”John Knoelk, a 52-year-old mil-itary veteran and former Military Police officer just got his 2006 Dodge Charger back after it was seized by the Wayne County Sherriff’s Office in July 2017.A Detroit native who now lives in Warren, said he was driving home on John R near State Fair when he stopped at a gas station, and a friend who had come from an appointment asked him for a ride home, so he gave her a lift. He said a sheriff’s deputy followed him from John R in Detroit at the State Fair Grounds past the Coney Island on 8 mile and stopped him in Warren on another side of John R and accused him of solicitation. He went to trial the spring of 2018.“I had he known the woman for years and I lived in and worked in that area for almost 30 years before moving to Warren,” Knoelk said. “She wasn’t a prostitute and neither of us ever had a criminal record and they never produced any evidence of criminal wrongdoing at trial.”

Still, the judge sided with the police and the Sherriff office kept his car. Soon after the Michigan ACLU took up Knoelk’s case after he filed an appeal and received an expedited appeal with immediate consideration, otherwise it might have taken another 12 months to adjudicate. He won his appeal in November 2018 and physically got it back Feb. 21st.

“Fortunately, because I won my case I did not have to pay the $900 fine or storage fees, but I still had to pay the towing cost to get my car home and it was clearly dam-aged,” Knoelk said. “It was not in the same condition when they took it and it was devalued because it sat for so long.” Knoelk, who is disabled, is bitter about his experience and said being without his car for nearly two years also denied him the ability to earn extra income because he had no meaningful transportation and had to rely on public transportation to get to appointments.

“Basically, it’s like a legalized carjacking,” he said. “You actually feel more violated than if a stranger did it because you don’t law enforcement to just roll up on you, demand your car and deny you due process under the Constitution.”Knoelk, a disabled veteran, car was impounded for nearly two years until a judge ruled late last year the seizure violated his Eighth Amendment rights and there was no evidence of his having committed a crime. However, he still did not get his car back until Feb. 21st of this year.

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