Filed Date: Feb. 4, 2020
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On February 4, 2020, three Michigan residents whose vehicles were seized and impounded by police filed this putative class action lawsuit against Wayne County in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The plaintiffs, represented by the public interest organization Institute for Justice and private counsel, sued under 42 U.S.C. §1983. They contended that Wayne County's civil forfeiture practices led to unconstitutional vehicle seizures. They sought declaratory, injunctive, and compensatory relief for violations of the Fourth Amendment, the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment, and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was originally assigned to Judge Arthur J. Tarnow.
The complaint alleged that Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office's policies created incentives for "the seizure of property without probable cause" and were designed to "maximize revenue" rather than fight crime. Wayne County allegedly seized and impounded cars "based simply on their proximity to crimes" committed by someone other than the driver. Once confiscated, plaintiffs were allegedly forced to pay "arbitrary fees" or go through a lengthy nuisance-abatement proceeding without the opportunity to assert an "innocent owners" defense.
For one named plaintiff, her car was allegedly impounded because her boyfriend was suspected of engaging in prostitution-related activities. She alleged that her car was impounded twice merely because it was in proximity to prostitution and drug-related activities, and that she was ultimately forced to pay a flat redemption fee to reclaim her vehicle, without an opportunity to assert that she was not present or involved in the alleged activity that prompted the seizure. This process ultimately forced her to file for bankruptcy and lose her car.
The plaintiffs sought to certify a class of "persons who own a vehicle (or other property within a vehicle) that has been or will be seized by Defendant Wayne County on or after February 5, 2018 and before the date of class certification, whether pursuant to Michigan’s Controlled Substances Act (MCL 333.7521, et seq.), the Public Nuisances chapter of the Revised Judicature Act of 1961 (MCL 600.3801, et seq.), or the so-called Omnibus Forfeiture Act (MCL 600.4701, et seq.)," as well as a subclass of individuals who had their vehicles so seized when they were not present or present but not suspected of any wrongdoing.
The county moved to dismiss the complaint on March 12, 2020. They argued that the Plaintiff Ingram lacked standing and suffered no constitutional violation because she waived any challenge to the seizure of her property. Further, they contended that there was probable cause - because the car was suspected of being connected to prostitution-related activities - to seize her vehicle, and that therefore she had no legal claim.
On May 1, 2020, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to specify that the police did not have probable cause to suspect any prostitution-related activities. Additionally, the amended complaint added a new plaintiff to the lawsuit and greater detail about Wayne County's alleged unconstitutional processes and their impact on the plaintiffs.
On July 1, 2020, the county filed motions to dismiss for each plaintiff, a motion to abstain claims asserted by Plaintiff Wilson, a motion to abstain or stay claims asserted by Plaintiff Reeve, and a motion for summary judgment on the claims asserted by Plaintiff Ingram. Judge Tarnow issued an opinion on each of these issues on September 30, 2021, allowing the case to proceed on several claims, discussed below. 2021 WL 4479398
The federal claims that the plaintiffs brought were complicated by contemporaneous state court action. In state court, Plaintiff Wilson’s case proceeded through discovery, and on April 29, 2021, the circuit court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary disposition, meaning she recovered her vehicle. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the decision. Judge Tarnow granted the county’s motion to abstain her federal claim pending results in the state court case for this seizure, but there was another seizure that she contested which did not have a pending state court action that was allowed to proceed.
Plaintiff Ingram stipulated to dismiss the county’s nuisance abatement case which barred her from challenging the seizure related to that case in state court. Her case was allowed to continue because her car was seized on a separate occasion and she did not waive her rights to challenge either seizure in federal court. The county argued that Plaintiff Ingram lacked standing because the seizures were both related to her ex-boyfriend’s activity and, since she was no longer dating him, she did not have a real and immediate threat of future injury. However, the case was allowed to proceed because the plaintiff alleged systemic vehicle forfeiture practices by the county and because two of the three plaintiffs had their vehicles seized twice. The county also argued that the plaintiff waived her rights to pursue a Fourth Amendment claim by settling in state court, but that settlement did not bar a federal claim.
Plaintiff Reeves's due process claim was allowed to proceed based on the county’s failure to provide a prompt post-seizure hearing. The county argued in a motion for reconsideration that the plaintiff had alternate avenues for seeking the return of their vehicle, but the court found these to be unavailable to Plaintiff Reeves because they required the initiation of forfeiture proceedings.
The district court also certified a question regarding Plaintiff Ingram’s due process claims to the Sixth Circuit, which the appellate court accepted for interlocutory appeal, but held in abeyance pending the district court’s ruling on motions for reconsideration filed by the county. All of those motions were denied on June 9, 2022, by District Judge George Caram Steeh, who was assigned this case after the death of Judge Tarnow, largely on grounds that the county was not making any arguments that the court had not already considered. 2022 WL 2079866.
The Sixth Circuit then lifted the abeyance to consider the issue of whether the county’s custom of delaying forfeiture proceedings and requiring a claimant’s appearance at multiple pre-trial conferences before they have an opportunity to challenge their car’s detention in front of a judicial officer constituted a due process violation under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court sent letters to seek input from the Assistant US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Attorney General of Michigan. On March 15, 2023, the case was scheduled for oral argument. As of June 2, 2023, this case is ongoing.
Graham Rotenberg (5/31/2020)
Robin Peterson (5/25/2023)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/16804911/parties/ingram-v-county-of-wayne/
Stafford, Elizabeth A. (Michigan)
Cavanaugh, Jaimie N (Minnesota)
Hottot, Wesley (Washington)
Morris, Barton W Jr (Michigan)
Stella, Davidde Alessandro (Michigan)
Stafford, Elizabeth A. (Michigan)
Tarnow, Arthur J. (Michigan)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/16804911/ingram-v-county-of-wayne/
Last updated June 30, 2023, 3:02 a.m.
State / Territory: Michigan
Filing Date: Feb. 4, 2020
Case Ongoing: Yes
Three Detroit residents who had their cars seized and impounded by Wayne County.
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Pending
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: None Yet / None
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief: