Michigan Civil Forfeiture Appeal Declined by U.S. Supreme Court, but Underlying Problem Remains

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In July 2015, Stephen Nichols presented a counterfeit insurance certificate during a traffic stop in Lincoln Park, Michigan. He was not arrested or charged with a crime, and later pled guilty to the civil infraction of operating a vehicle without proof of insurance.

Despite the complete absence of criminal charges, Lincoln Park police confiscated his vehicle for its involvement in a violation of the Michigan Identity Theft Protection Act (MITPA), a criminal statute that contains a forfeiture provision.

Pursuant to Michigan Compiled Laws (MCL) § 445.79b(1)(c), the Wayne County prosecutor’s office was required to “promptly institute forfeiture proceedings” regarding the vehicle. Consistent with MCL § 445.79b(1), the prosecutor’s office notified Nichols of the seizure, its intent to forfeit the property, and that it would be forfeit if he failed to contest the action within 20 days of receiving notice. Nichols filed a timely claim of interest and posted a bond as required by law.

While the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office should have scheduled a forfeiture hearing, none was requested, because it had determined that it would not pursue a forfeiture proceeding. It failed, however, to notify either the Lincoln Park Police Department or Mr. Nichols of this decision. This left the car in judicial limbo.

Nichols could not sue for the return of his car, because MCL § 445.79b(2) specifically provides that, “Property taken or detained under [MITPA] is not subject to an action to recover personal property.” Furthermore, while MITPA allows municipalities to request a “continued detention hearing” to determine the status of a detention before a final adjudication, similar rights are not provided to property owners.

After three years without any progress in the case, Nichols filed a federal suit against the City of Lincoln Park and Wayne County. He sought to recover the car and other damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (a § 1983 claim) on the theory that the municipalities failed to provide constitutional due process to recover his property.

Nichols argued that he was entitled to a pre-forfeiture hearing to contest the detention of his vehicle while forfeiture litigation was pending. He also argued that Wayne County engaged in a “policy, practice, custom or pattern” of not providing such hearings. Nichols v. County of Wayne, Case No. 18-12026, 5 (E.D. Mich. 2018).

The district court found that the City of Lincoln Park and Wayne County did “not routinely provide post-deprivation, pre-forfeiture hearings for civil seizures” and that the failure to provide such a hearing did “not violate due process.” Nichols v. County of Wayne at 5. In consequence, the complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim.

Nichols appealed his case to the Sixth Circuit, where a divided panel noted that he made his § 1983 claim against the municipalities themselves, and not “the unnamed county prosecutor who failed to institute forfeiture proceedings in his case.” Nichols v. Wayne County, No. 19-1056, 9 (Sixth Circuit 2020). In consequence, he could prevail only if he suffered a deprivation of rights “directly caused by a municipal policy or custom.” Nichols v. Wayne County. at 5 (citing Hardrick vCity of Detroit876 F.3d 238, 243 (Sixth Circuit 2017).

The majority found that City of Lincoln Park and Wayne County did not engage in a pattern of “deliberate conduct” necessary for a viable § 1983 claim. Nichols v. Wayne County at 9 (citing Boardof County Commissioners vBrown520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997). In consequence, the lower court’s dismissal was affirmed.

On June 1, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Stephen Nichols’s petition for certiorari without comment.

Legal arguments aside, the fact is that the Wayne County prosecutor’s office held Stephen Nichols’s car for three years after it determined that it would not proceed with a forfeiture hearing. Yet he was unable to recover his vehicle, because the Michigan legislature failed to set a deadline for government action or establish procedures to allow property owners to recover their property when the government fails to act.

Because the Wayne County prosecutor’s office had already determined that it would not pursue a forfeiture action, the Michigan legislature need not address the larger questions regarding the equity of civil forfeiture or the sources of police funding.

It must, however, amend Michigan’s MITPA statute to ensure owners can bring suit to recover their property when government fails to act promptly. This will ensure that cases like Nichols’s do not happen again.