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Thursday, January 10, 2019

I Called Police for Help and They Stole My Car: My Brush with Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture is prevalent across the nation but very rarely talked about.

Image Credit: Scott Davidson from United States [CC BY 2.0 (]

The Presumption of Innocence

The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of our legal system that ensures that “the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies.”

However, this principle has been under threat in recent years by police departments across the United States and the widely practiced policy of civil asset forfeiture. When a property is determined, by the police, to be involved in a crime, it is seized and held by the police department.

Often times, the property is held indefinitely only to be auctioned or released at a very high cost. As a recent article in The Detroit News points out:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said he doubted civil asset forfeitures were constitutional.

“This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas wrote. “Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.”

The Presumption of Guilt

The practice often imposes severe economic penalties on individuals accused of crimes, which, for many people, limits severely their ability to even defend themselves against the crimes of which they have been accused.

In practice, the newfound presumption of guilt compounds the abuse and lowers faith in the system as a whole, as many innocents accept guilt and pay fines because the alternative is often loss of transportation and possibly employment.

I Called 911 for Help, and the Police Stole My Car

I recently had my own experience with civil asset forfeiture after a call for help put me into the gears of a policing system geared more toward profit than justice. In early December of 2018, I was driving on a winter road in the early morning hours in West Michigan, and I collided with another car that was sideways in my lane after it hit a patch of ice. I called 911 after the accident, and when the police arrived, they informed me they were going to impound my vehicle and charge me with a misdemeanor.

Thankfully, the charge of an improper plate was dropped, but I was still held liable for all of the impound and towing fees. At the end of the day, it totaled $125.
My car wasn’t impounded because of the accident, the way I had driven, or, in fact, anything else I had done. My car was impounded, as I discovered after hours at the Secretary of State (DMV of Michigan), because of a paperwork error that happened with the state that falsely showed me having no insurance.

Thankfully, the charge of an improper plate was dropped, but I was still held liable for all of the impound and towing fees. At the end of the day, it totaled $125.

The police department refused to refund these costs because “it was the State of Michigan’s fault, and not theirs.”

I’ve requested reimbursement but have not even received a response. I can’t help but wish I had never called 911 and had instead just exchanged insurance information with the other driver.  

I’m Lucky—Not Everyone Else Is

I lucked out, though. I had a helpful woman at the local branch of the Michigan Secretary of State who called and forced others to track down the error—others who, in fact, said they were only bothering to check “because he has USAA insurance,” as she disclosed to me.

I am not anyone who has ever felt particularly privileged, but in that moment I did, and it disgusted me. I was told that the only reason they would check their own paperwork to clear me of wrongful criminal charges is that I am a veteran with USAA insurance.

The system went the extra step only because I was once a part of the system. Otherwise, they would have been content to leave me out to dry—something that happens to people every single day across America.

I am also lucky I could afford the $125 in fines and was able to release my vehicle the same day without the fines piling up over a week or until my next payday.

No One Wants to Be a Martyr

There have been decades of debate around this issue, and many egregious cases have come to light over the years showing how innocent people have had their lives ruined as a result of civil asset forfeiture policies.

Looking at my own case, one could see how suddenly losing your car could soon mean losing your job if you can’t make it there. Now, without a job or reliable transportation, try to afford an attorney to defend yourself or to ever get your car out of impound as it racks up $50 extra in fees with each passing day.

Unfortunately, civil asset forfeiture is prevalent across the nation but very rarely talked about

To be absolutely blunt: it is a rigged system designed to make people pay relatively small fines in order to not lose their life.

No one wants to be a martyr, and looking at those who have tried to fight against this system leaves little hope for being anything else if you try.

Husband Cheating with a Prostitute? You Lose Your Car

One of the most famous cases is from 1996, Bennis v. Michigan, where John Bennis was arrested soliciting a prostitute and had the car he and his wife owned seized. Tina Bennis sued all the way up to the Supreme Court for the return of her car, stolen by the police because of her cheating husband.

The Supreme Court ruled against her, which has only encouraged police departments and cities throughout our nation to further exploit innocent citizens for profit when given the opportunity.

What Can We Do?

Unfortunately, civil asset forfeiture is prevalent across the nation but very rarely talked about in the mainstream.

If you are as angry as I am that innocent people are subject to the state’s punishment, I encourage you to talk about it with your friends, talk to your local representatives, or support groups like the Institute for Justice, which takes up these cases with the goal of bringing real lasting reform to our legal system.

  • Cody Chipman is an alumnus of the University of Michigan, a FEE Seminar Alumni and a current participant in Praxis.