In July 2015, Stephen Nichols was stopped by a police officer when a random check of his vehicle’s license plate indicated the vehicle might not be insured. When a brief investigation revealed irregularities with Nichols’ insurance certificate, the officer not only issued a ticket but seized Nichols’ Toyota Avalon without a warrant for the purpose of forfeiture. The officer based the seizure on Michigan’s identity theft law, which allows the warrantless seizure of property if an officer believes it is connected to identity theft and allows police departments to keep the proceeds of forfeited property. Nichols himself was never charged with an identity theft crime. Nichols filed a $250 bond in order to contest the forfeiture of his vehicle. By law, county prosecutors (who were seeking forfeiture of the vehicle) were then required to “promptly institute forfeiture proceedings.” But the prosecutors took no action for three years, during which Nichols was deprived of the possession and use of his vehicle without any hearing on whether the seizure was factually or legally supportable.
Nichols subsequently filed a lawsuit asserting that the county had violated his constitutional right to not be deprived of his property without due process of law and a timely court hearing. The district court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the three-year delay did not violate Nichols’ due process rights. On appeal, a divided circuit court panel upheld the dismissal. The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief asks the circuit court to reconsider its decision, noting that Nichols’ case is symptomatic of abusive government forfeiture schemes that incentivize police to take and keep private property.
The amicus brief in Stephen Nichols v. Wayne County is available at www.rutherford.org. Affiliate attorney David Porter of Kienbaum Hardy Viviano Pelton & Forrest, P.L.C, in Birmingham, Mich., assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the Nichols amicus brief.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.