CINCINNATI, Ohio — Fighting back against the “policing for profit” forfeiture system that unfairly enriches police departments at the expense of ordinary citizens, The Rutherford Institute has come to the aid of a Michigan man whose vehicle was taken by police without a warrant and kept for three years without any opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of the seizure. In an amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Nichols v. Wayne County, Rutherford Institute attorneys are asking the Court to allow Stephen Nichols to recover damages for the confiscation of his vehicle, which Wayne County police seized and kept for three years without any basis for the seizure before finally releasing it to him. The Institute’s brief asserts that this case is but one of many nationwide showing the injustice that results from civil asset forfeiture laws that incentivize prolonged detention of seized property in the absence of evidence that the property owner had broken any laws. In 2017 alone, Wayne County police reportedly seized vehicles from 380 people who were never charged with criminal activity.
Affiliate attorney David Porter of Kienbaum Hardy Viviano Pelton & Forrest, P.L.C, in Birmingham, Mich., assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the Nichols amicus brief.
“These ‘policing for profit’ asset forfeiture schemes are just a new, twisted form of guilt by association. Only it’s not the citizenry being accused of wrongdoing, just their money,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “What this adds up to is a paradigm in which Americans no longer have to be guilty to be stripped of their property, rights and liberties. All you have to be is in possession of something the government wants. Motorists have been particularly vulnerable to this modern-day form of highway robbery.”
In July 2015, Stephen Nichols was stopped by a police officer when a random check of his vehicle’s license plate indicated the vehicle might not be insured. When a brief investigation revealed irregularities with Nichols’ insurance certificate, the officer not only issued a ticket but seized Nichols’ Toyota Avalon without a warrant for the purpose of forfeiture. The officer based the seizure on Michigan’s identity theft law, which allows the warrantless seizure of property if an officer believes it is connected to identity theft and allows police departments to keep the proceeds of forfeited property. Nichols himself was never charged with an identity theft crime. Nichols filed a $250 bond in order to contest the forfeiture of his vehicle. By law, county prosecutors (who were seeking forfeiture of the vehicle) were then required to “promptly institute forfeiture proceedings.” But the prosecutors took no action for three years, during which Nichols was deprived of the possession and use of his vehicle without any hearing on whether the seizure was factually or legally supportable. Nichols subsequently filed a lawsuit asserting that the county had violated his constitutional right to not be deprived of his property without due process of law and a timely court hearing. The district court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the three-year delay did not violate Nichols’ due process rights. On appeal, a divided circuit court panel upheld the dismissal. The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief asks the circuit court to reconsider its decision, noting that Nichols’ case is symptomatic of abusive government forfeiture schemes that incentivize police to take and keep private property.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.