On October 12, 2004, Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy announced that she would aggressively pursue sanctions against motorists accused of driving drunk by seizing vehicles under a provision of Michigan law that permitted prosecutors to forfeit vehicles of motorists convicted of repeat drunk driving offenses. But what Prosecutor Worthy actually meant to say was that she would illegally place holds on suspected vehicles, refusing to permit towing agencies to release these vehicles until $900 was paid as ransom. Whether the motorist was actually charged or convicted was not Prosecutor Worthy’s concern, so long as the funds were certified.
Behind the scenes, Prosecutor Worthy offered to divvy up funds between her office and local police agencies to share in the forfeiture profits. Police began to immediately and aggressively seize vehicles without court approval, demanding money.
Because our firm was at the forefront of this fight, we were provided first row seats to the various changes in policies. Many of the policies changed as a result of our motions in both civil as well as criminal cases. For example, within a few months of the policy’s enactment, the Maze Legal Group obtained an order against Prosecutor Worthy’s policy involving the City of Belleville, Michigan, in the 34th District Court, settling aside an OWI Push Off case. Although monetary damages were only a nominal $250.00, our firm was able to succeed in compelling the City of Belleville Police Department to pay the vehicle owner damages after we compelled the police to return the vehicle.
A year or two later, we began to challenge criminal cases, using the prior civil settlements to show that our clients had been punished for purposes of the 5th Amendment’s prohibition against Double Jeopardy. At around the same time, Prosecutor Worthy changed her policy, requiring that her officers seek “ex parte” orders from judges to justify retention of the vehicles. “Ex parte” means without the other party, and these motions are generally unethical under professional rules of conduct unless good cause is shown and the other party is notified as soon as possible. In each and every case, the defendant property owner was not given notice until after the ex parte order was presented, considered and entered by the court. This practice continues through today, even though the ethical implications have been raised with several judges and the prosecutor’s office.
Almost ten years have passed since Prosecutor Worthy announced Wayne County’s unlawful vehicle seizure policy, and a lot has changed, while a lot has remained the same. Profit still drives the program, and the unlawful seizures occur with greater frequency today. Many judges are still apt to sign an ex parte order. But the good news is that these vehicle seizures can be challenged, and we have established a track record in successfully winning OWI Push Off claims.