Supreme Court Makes It Harder For State To Confiscate Property

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

In animportantcivilrights victory, last week, the Supreme Court movedtocurbgovernmentseizureof 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 anIndiana case, will permitcitizenstomoreaggressivelyblockassetforfeitureandother 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 theDepartment ofJustice foundittobe amajor weaponusedbypoliceandthecourtsystem inFerguson topersecuteitsblackcitizenswhileraisingreve-nue for the police department and local court system.As the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. noted, in thecaseknown as Timbs v. Indiana, the Court unanimouslyheldthat the Eighth Amendment’s protectionagainst excessive fines and fees applies to the states as wellasthefederal 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 subjecttocriminalfinesand forfeitures.

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

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs rightly extends the Eighth Amendment’s protectionsagainstexcessive ents. The Court’s decisionbuildsupontheargumentraisedinour brief by pointing to the historic use of criminal fines to enforce a racial hierarchy and compel Black Americans intoindentured 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 comeas arelief to Wayne County residents in particular. Skorup notedthatlawenforcementofficials in Wayne County have anotorious reputationforpullingpeopleoverinareasofknowndruguseorastheyleavemedicalmarijuanafacilitiesorforsimplyaccusingthemofsolicitationorevendrivingwithoutinsur-ance, and then proceeding to seize their vehicle. They thencharging them $900 to getthembackorforcethemtofighttheseseizuresin courtoften withoutbeing 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 homeorsellsitbeforethe conviction. And the money stays with the local law enforcement agency that seizes it.”John Knoelk, a 52-year-old mil-itaryveteranand former Military Police officerjustgot his 2006 Dodge Charger backafteritwasseizedby 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 heknownthewomanforyears and I lived inandworkedinthatareafor almost 30 years beforemoving 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 judgesidedwiththepoliceand theSherriff officekepthis car. Soon after the Michigan ACLU took upKnoelk’scaseafterhefiledanappealandreceivedanexpeditedappealwithimmediate consideration, otherwise itmighthavetaken 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 orstorage fees, but I still hadtopaythetowingcosttogetmycarhomeanditwasclearlydam-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 incomebecausehehadno meaningful transportation and had to relyonpublictransportationto get to appointments.

“Basically, it’s like alegalized 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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