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Court Says Cops Wrong To Seize Car Over $20 Of Weed, But Not For Reason You'd Think

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 14/10/2015 Nick Wing
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For the last two and half years, Linda Ross has been fighting to get her car back from the cops. Police in Westland, Michigan, seized the pizza delivery woman's vehicle in April 2013, when they pulled Ross over after a shift and found her in possession of a gram of marijuana.

Shortly after, they tried to take the car for good, claiming Ross had used it in the commission of a crime: buying $20 of weed. That would be justifiable under the state's laws on civil asset forfeiture, a process by which law enforcement can permanently seize property or cash they suspect of being connected to criminal activity without charging the owner with a crime. That property -- which can include cars, houses and jewelry -- is then regularly sold off, with some of the proceeds flowing back to the departments that seized it. 

But Westland police won't be putting Ross' 2007 Ford Focus on the auction block just yet. Last week, a Michigan court of appeals ruled that police were wrong to take the car, overturning a previous decision that had approved its forfeiture. The judges, however, didn't rule in Ross' favor because it seems outrageous to seize someone's car simply because it was used to buy a gram of weed. Instead, they said it was how Ross got the marijuana that made all the difference.

In a 2-1 decision, the majority wrote that because a customer had supposedly given Ross the weed as a tip for a pizza delivery -- and that she hadn't actually driven her car with the intent of purchasing drugs -- the vehicle wasn't subject to forfeiture.

“Despite Linda’s testimony that she sometimes received marijuana as a tip from various customers, there was no evidence that she expected to receive it on this particular occasion, that this particular customer had given her marijuana before, or that she was motivated to go to the customer’s house by anything other than a delivery call,” read the ruling.

The judges went on to note that simple marijuana possession is not grounds for seizure or forfeiture and that a previous ruling had erred in concluding that the presence of weed in Ross' car meant she'd used the vehicle for the express purpose of obtaining the drugs.

“According to plaintiff and the trial court’s perspective, the fact that 'the car was used to receive marijuana' because marijuana was placed into it established -- on its own -- that Linda used the vehicle for the purpose of receiving marijuana," they wrote. "By that logic, a vehicle would be subject to forfeiture in all cases of mere possession.”

Barring another round of appeals, Ross should finally be getting her car back. Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller told The Detroit News that her office is currently reviewing its options.

Ross' legal battle comes on the heels of a much broader debate about civil asset forfeiture in Michigan. Last week, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a seven-bill package designed to address some of the core criticism of the controversial legal process. Among them is a measure to raise the standard of proof needed for forfeiture, which would require police to establish "clear and convincing" evidence that property was related to a crime before enacting proceedings. Another would require law enforcement agencies to keep and submit detailed records of their forfeiture cases. The legislation is now on the desk of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R).

Michigan's reform effort has been reinforced by statewide reporting that suggests civil asset forfeiture is routinely used -- and sometimes abused -- by law enforcement agencies across the state. Critics say the practice provides a profit motive for officers to prioritize seizures over public safety.

In 2014, police in Michigan reported seizing nearly $24 million in assets in cases involving suspected drug dealers, about the same total as the previous year. But these numbers have been criticized as incomplete. Reporting has traditionally been optional for police departments in Michigan, and many opted not to submit their numbers. Documentation also included only drug cases, leaving out forfeitures tied to other sorts of crimes.

While the recent reforms have been hailed as an important step forward, none of them would explicitly prohibit police from seizing a car from someone they could prove had, in fact, driven to purchase $20 of weed. Ross' battle still underscores the injustice of out-of-control civil asset forfeiture and the need for reform, said Holly Harris, executive director for Fix Forfeiture, an organization that has worked on overhauling laws in Michigan and other states.

"When you take a person's car or home away, you remove their ability to get to their jobs, care for their children and be productive citizens," Harris said. "The collateral consequences to these forfeitures are extremely harmful to society -- far more harmful in this case than the underlying act committed by the property owner."

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