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Sixth Circuit Announces Due Process Right to ‘Prompt’ Post-Seizure Hearing While Government Deciding Whether to Initiate Forfeiture Proceedings and Holds Wayne County’s Vehicle Forfeiture Program Violates Due Process

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the policies and practices of Wayne County, Michigan, in pursuing the civil forfeiture of vehicles seized by police violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause because prosecutors took months to decide whether to proceed with forfeiture proceedings without giving the vehicles’ owners any opportunity to be heard regarding the detention of their vehicles.

On February 4, 2020, Melisa Ingram (then-50), Stephanie Wilson (then-29), and Robert Reeves (then-29) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, challenging the county’s policies and practices related to the civil forfeiture of vehicles. According to court documents, the county “seizes vehicles simply because of the vehicle’s location in an area generally associated with crime. Regardless of the owner’s innocence, Wayne County impounds the vehicle and its contents until the owner pays a redemption fee. The fee is $900 for the first seizure, $1,800 for the second, and $2,700 for the third, not including other fees for towing and storage.

“If the owner is unable or unwilling to pay the redemption fee, the only alternatives are to either abandon the vehicle or to wait for the county prosecutors to decide whether to initiate civil forfeiture proceedings. Before a forfeiture action is brought, there are three or more [monthly] pretrial conferences involving the property owner and prosecutors, without a judge present. During those conferences, prosecutors ‘attempt to persuade [the owner] to pay the redemption fee, towing costs, and storage fees, pointing out that storage fees accrue daily.’”

If the owner misses a monthly conference, the vehicle is forfeited, and title is transferred to the county. The conferences take at least four months after which it takes another four to six months to complete pre-hearing requirements and finally be heard by a neutral decisionmaker. Thus, the delay an innocent owner must wait before being allowed to recover the vehicle without paying fees is at least eight months.

The seizure hearings are conducted pursuant to M.C.L. §§ 333.7521, et seq. (Nuisance Abatement statute), and 600.3801, et seq. (Controlled Substances Act) and 600.4701 (Omnibus Forfeiture Act). These provisions require prosecutors to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the vehicle was used: in the furtherance of a nuisance (including lewdness, controlled substances, alcohol, and violence) or to facilitate the transportation “for receipt” of controlled substances or, by a preponderance of the evidence, it is “the proceeds of a crime … or the instrumentality of a crime” or was used to “conceal” or “escape from” certain crimes. In the latter case, the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture if the owner “did not have prior knowledge of, or consent to, the crime, if the lack of prior knowledge is not the result of the owner’s willful blindness.”

The Court stated: “The generally high burden of proof placed upon the government under these statutes only applies at the forfeiture hearing itself. The statutes therefore do not protect plaintiffs from the deprivation of their properties while they await that hearing. The interim harm prompted plaintiffs to file suit.”

Wilson, a single mother who was studying to be a nurse, had two vehicles seized. The first seizure happened when she drove to pick up her daughter’s father. As soon as he entered the car, police ordered them to exit without explanation. No drugs, guns, or cash was found. Nonetheless, police seized the vehicle for violating the Controlled Substances Act.

Police gave her a notice of seizure that instructed her to contact the prosecutor’s office in no less than three business days and no more than 20 days to contest the seizure. When she tried to do so, office staff thwarted her attempts, telling her she was too early or the paperwork was missing. Eighteen days after the seizure, they told her she was too late to contest it. She was forced to abandon her car and spent a month without a vehicle before purchasing another one using her tax refund.

The second seizure, five months later, was a replay of the first except that she was able to contest the seizure. This time, police told her that, in picking up her daughter’s father, she was “in the wrong neighborhood” and she “shouldn’t be here.”

Prosecutors waited five months before initiating forfeiture proceedings and beginning the monthly conferences. Wilson had been through three conferences and without her vehicle for eight months when the lawsuit was filed. She still had not seen a judge.

Ingram’s car was seized twice when her boyfriend was driving in it. Police claimed they believed he was driving around seeking paid sex or had visited a location associated with paid sex. The first time, Ingram paid the redemption fee and associated costs. This forced her into bankruptcy. The second seizure forced her to surrender her interest in the car to the lien holder, Ford Motor Company.

Reeves’s car was seized after he gave a friend instruction on how to operate a skid-steer loader. When he went to a nearby gas station to buy a bottle of water, police surrounded him, questioned him about a stolen skid-steer, and seized his car. The skid-steer his friend was using had been rented, and he had the rental contract. Nonetheless, Reeves was without his car for six months, and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office refused to take his or his attorney’s calls prior to the lawsuit being filed.

The day after it was filed, prosecutors agreed to release the car. Reeves still had to pay the impound lot $100. Then, police arrested him for possession of stolen property. The state court dismissed the charges for lack of probable cause. Police arrested him again on the same charge, and the state court again dismissed the charges.

In denying one of the county’s motions to dismiss, the District Court determined that a prompt post-seizure and pre-forfeiture hearing is required due process under Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). Because the Sixth Circuit had not yet ruled on whether a prompt post-seizure hearing to determine whether the government’s continued retention of seized property prior to final adjudication is required under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, the Court certified the issue for interlocutory appeal.

Attorneys Wesley Hottot and Kirby Thomas West of the Institute for Justice in Seattle and Arlington, Virginia, respectively, represented the plaintiffs on appeal. In granting permission to appeal, the Court noted that, in its unpublished decision in Nichols v. Wayne County, 822 F. App’x 445 (6th Cir. 2020), it recognized that due process requires notice and a timely post-seizure hearing but failed to define “timely.” Now, the Court took this opportunity to address that issue.

Reviewing de novo and accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, the Court noted that the old English common law requirement of a prompt post-seizure hearing was carried over into the American republic at its founding. The Court declined the county’s invitation to use the speedy trial analysis in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), determining instead that the Matthews analysis, as applied to this issue in Krimstock v. Kelly, 306 F.3d 40 (2d Cir. 2002), is more appropriate.

The Court explained that the Matthews analysis involves a three-part test for determining the validity of any administrative decision-making process under the “Due Process Clause as follows: (1) “the degree of potential deprivation that may be created by a particular decision,” (2) the “fairness and reliability of the existing pretermination procedures, and the probable value, if any, of additional procedural safeguards,” and (3) the public interest. Matthews.

The Court then noted that the Second Circuit’s application of the Matthews analysis in Krimstock directly addressed the constitutional issue present in the current case. After reviewing the application of the Matthews analysis by the Second Circuit, the Court similarly applied the Mattews analysis to the present case and concluded that all three Mattews factors favored the plaintiffs. Thus, the Court held that “Wayne County was required to provide a prompt post-seizure hearing for plaintiffs’ personal vehicles.”

The Court acknowledged that the question of what constitutes a timely hearing is still left unanswered. Although the Court refused to “answer this question per se,” it did provide some guidance for lower courts.

In providing guidance as to what constitutes a “prompt” hearing, the Court considered County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991) (probable cause hearing must be held within 48 hours of arrest absent extraordinary circumstances), and other circuits requiring post-seizure hearings within one to three weeks (e.g., Krimstock and Coleman v. Watt, 255 F.3d 257 (8th Cir. 1994)) and determined that the hearing must be held within two weeks of the property being seized and include the Matthews analysis with the burden of proof on the government to show “probable validity of continued deprivation.” See Krimstock.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the District Court and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Ingram v. Wayne County, 81 F.4th 603 (6th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Ingram v. Wayne County



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