As a result of civil forfeiture laws, innocent citizens all over the country have had their property seized and forfeited to the state. As noted in a report by the Heritage Foundation:
[B]etween 2006 and 2008, law enforcement agents in Tenaha, Texas, engaged in a systematic practice of seizing cash and property from innocent drivers with absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing. In Philadelphia, police seized the home of two sisters whose brother, who did not live there, showed up while trying to evade the cops. In Detroit, cops seized . . . cars owned by patrons of an art institute event—because the institute had failed to get a liquor license.
Michigan has had its share of stories come to light of people having their property and money forfeited to police without being convicted of, or in some cases, even charged with a crime.[*] Below are several examples.
In September 2014, Wally Kowalski had his bank account frozen and his power generator and tools seized by police. Kowalski has a doctorate in design engineering and lives in Van Buren County. He is a medical marijuana patient, who tries to grow the product legally under Michigan law. He was not arrested or charged with a crime until months after his bank account was frozen and his property seized.[†]
In January 2013, federal agents seized $35,000 from the bank account of the Dehko family who own a grocery store in Fraser. The family made frequent cash deposits at their bank, because their insurance policy only covered up to $10,000. Federal law requires banks to report transactions above $10,000 and law enforcement may have suspected that the family was intentionally attempting to avoid their transactions from being reported, which is illegal. The Dehkos were never charged with a crime. The Internal Revenue Service finally returned the money in November 2013 after critical national media coverage.
In November 2013, Thomas Williams of St. Joseph County said he spent 10 hours in handcuffs while police searched his home and property. They took his car, television, cell phone and the cash he had on hand. As a result, he was stranded at his home for three days. Williams says he does not know why his assets are still frozen, and the Southwestern Enforcement Team, a drug-enforcement task force, took more than a year to charge him with a crime.[‡]
In November 2012, the Cheung family, living just outside Detroit, had $135,000 frozen in a bank account, presumably because they were making routine deposits of slightly less than $10,000, similar to the Dekho situation. As a result, the Cheungs could not pay their property taxes or restaurant costs and got into financial trouble. No criminal charges were ever filed, but, fortunately, the money was eventually returned.
In 2004, Krista Vaughn was giving her friend and Red Cross co-worker Amanda Odom a ride home from work. After dropping Odom off at a bank in Detroit, Vaughn circled the block before picking her back up. While she was waiting for Vaughn, an officer with Wayne County Sheriff’s Morality Unit accused Odom of making eye contact with nearby motorists, supposedly for solicitation of prostitution. On this suspicion, police issued Odom a ticket and seized Vaughn’s 2002 Chrysler Sebring. Odom’s ticket was eventually dropped and neither woman was charged with any crime, but police still charged Vaughn $1,400 to get her vehicle back. Vaughn reluctantly paid the fee, because she believed it would be less expensive than trying to fight the case legally.
In 1993, Judy Enright of Ann Arbor had her art seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials while it was on display at an art fair. She used feathers she found in her own backyard for this piece of art. However, according to the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918, it is illegal to sell certain types of bird feathers, a fact the federal officials used to justify their seizure of the art. Enright was never charged with a crime.
In 1992, the home of James Fouch and those of his two sons were raided by federal officials on suspicion that the family was engaging in loan fraud. Property worth over a combined $500,000 was seized and auctioned off within 21 months. The family’s business — a credit union — was liquidated. No criminal charges were ever filed against any member of the Fouch family.
In 1988, Joseph Haji, suspected of possessing illegal drugs, had his Detroit grocery market searched by police. They did not find any drugs, but drug-sniffing dogs responded to a few $1 bills in the cash register. That was enough for law enforcement to seize $4,384 in cash that was on hand in the store. Haji was never charged with a crime, and the police kept all the money.
[*] It should be noted that these are just examples that have been reported in the media. No doubt there are many other similar stories that have not been publicized.
[†] He was eventually charged with manufacturing and distributing marijuana after news reports about his case were published. Anne Schieber, “Property Seized, Money Taken — But No Crime,” Michigan Capitol Confidential (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Dec. 3, 2014), http://perma.cc/9D7C-WXC7; Anne Schieber, “Man Who Speaks Out About Police Seizing His Property Without Charges Is Arrested Hours Later,” Michigan Capitol Confidential (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Dec. 6, 2014), http://perma.cc/X2YU-RCXP.
[‡] As was the case with Wally Kowalski, it was only after news reports about Williams’ case were published that Williams was officially charged with a crime. Anne Schieber, “Property Seized, Money Taken — But No Crime,” Michigan Capitol Confidential (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Dec. 3, 2014), http://perma.cc/9D7C-WXC7; L.L. Brasier, “Police Seize Property and Cash in Questionable Raids,” Detroit Free Press, Feb. 23, 2015, http://perma.cc/88C5-4QU5.