On February 4, 2020, The Institute for Justice filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Detroit, hoping to end the Motor City’s “seize and ransom” vehicle program.
Detroit’s policing for profit scheme is very lucrative, as all money received through civil forfeiture goes directly to the police department responsible for the seizure.
“Wayne County has seized more than 2,600 vehicles and collected more than $1.2 million in revenue from civil asset forfeiture over the past two years. That’s according to information received by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy through a Freedom of Information Act request.”
The Institute for Justice lawsuit attacks the scheme, calling Wayne County’s vehicle seizure and civil forfeiture practices unconstitutional and unreasonable because they unfairly target residents without ever charging them with a criminal offence.
Civil forfeiture is heinous because the citizen has no rights and no recourse. Without the ability to challenge the seizure in court, or defend themselves from a criminal charge, most people are left paying the ransom or walking away from their vehicle and everything in it.
Detroit targets the poorest areas of the city with this program, claiming it is part of an overall plan to clean up the drug trade plaguing so many parts of the city.
The problem is, of course, police don’t care if it’s a single mom driving down a street “known for drug dealing” on her way to work. They seize the car anyway, leaving her stranded and with no recourse.
Thankfully, the Institute for Justice is taking up the fight against this unconstitutional practice.
“Detroit’s forfeiture program is less like a justice system and more like having your car stolen and paying a ransom to get it back,” explains Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at Institute for Justice.
“Once police seize a car, there is no judge or jury. Instead, prosecutors give owners a choice. They can either pay the city’s ransom or hire an attorney and enter a byzantine process that is confusing, time-consuming, and expensive. The process is designed to ensure that owners fail nearly every time. I’ve watched this happen time and time again, and never once have I seen an owner successfully make it to court and get his or her car back.”
Civil Forfeiture in Canada
Canada’s civil forfeiture laws, we’re told, were designed to deter crime and compensate victims. Instead, the law is used to create and punish innocent people for the actions of others.
While Canadian authorities haven’t stooped so low as to seize vehicles and ransom them back to their owners, civil forfeiture laws across the nation are still abused regularly.
The Margaret and Terry Reilly case is one example.
The Reillys own several rental properties, some of which are former single-family homes that they have converted into rooming houses for low-income tenants. Margaret has been involved in alleviating poverty and homelessness since her father became the priest at an inner-city Anglican church in Toronto and opened a youth hostel there, while Terry has served on the City of Orillia Homeless Committee. Providing housing to marginalized members of society has always been a deliberate choice for the Reillys.
In 2008, after police surveillance confirmed drug activity at two of the Reillys’ rental properties, a branch of the government called the Director of Asset Management took control of them. Since then, the properties have languished largely unoccupied, falling into progressively worse repair. Stripped of their rights as landlords, the Reillys had no choice but to watch their properties deteriorate physically and depreciate in value.
Then, in 2012, the Government of Ontario brought a motion to permanently seize and sell the properties on the grounds that some of the tenants’ rents may have been paid, in part, with the proceeds of their drug activity. There is no evidence that any funds paid by tenants was derived from drug money; the state merely assumed that cash payments must have come from the proceeds of illegal activity.
The Canadian Constitution Foundation defended the Reilly’s from Ontario’s abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws. After a decade-long battle, the Reillys finally won their case.
“Without the assistance of the Canadian Constitution Foundation we could not have continued to fight to get this resolution. It’s because of the CCF’s work and our lawyers, Shawna Fattal and Ben Grant, that we will finally be able to move on with our lives,” said Maggie Reilly.
The Canadian Constitution Foundation also forced the Government of Ontario to finally drop their civil forfeiture claim on former gunsmith Bruce Montague’s home and 160-acre property.
The Reillys and the Montagues are the lucky ones. Most people caught in the trap of civil forfeiture lose everything in what the government likes to call “victimless prosecutions.”
If you’re looking for an organization to support, I urge you to consider a donation to the Canadian Constitution Foundation. They’re at the forefront of the court battle for our rights and freedoms and they’re winning.