Cop Cars and Cash Machines

When C.J. Ciaramella wrote about the story of Justyna and Matt Kozbial’s building being seized for forfeiture by Highland Park, Michigan, it evoked a curious reaction. It wasn’t just the outrage about the ordinary scheme of civil in rem forfeiture, the taking of “things” the government claims was used in or derived from crime. That’s been going on for the past decade or so, even though in rem forfeiture has been going since the ’80s with few outside of the criminal defense bar caring.

As in rem forfeiture spread from putative drug dealers and mobsters to ordinary folk, people began to see why it was such a bad idea, a wrong-headed solution when it only affected people society disfavored. When it touched the lives of people who were sympathetic, the epiphany happened. Better late than never, right?

But the Kozbial’s story struck a different note.

The city officials found a marijuana grow operation inside. The Kozbials, immigrants from Poland, say they had a state license to grow medical marijuana, but the city seized the building anyway and held on to it for 17 months without charging them with a crime.

Nothing unusual so far.

In a response to an interrogatory filed in the Kozbials’ subsequent lawsuit against Highland Park, a city police officer answered “none” when asked to identify any predicate felony offenses justifying the seizure.

This might seem a bit weird to non-lawyers, but no predicate felony is required. They walked into a pot growhouse, illegal under federal law sufficient to create a plausible basis for federally adopted forfeiture.

Things then took a highly unusual turn when the Kozbials say they received a settlement offer from the town: Stop growing marijuana and buy two vehicles for the local police department.

A February 24, 2021, email provided to Reason by the Kozbials’ attorney, Marc Deldin, shows that a Highland Park police officer, ferrying a message from city attorney Terry Ford, sent the Kozbials quotes for two cars from a local Ford dealership, totaling about $70,000.

Boom. That was it. That was the kicker. That’s what made people’s heads explode.

“Extortion, there’s no other way to explain it,” [Kozbials’ attorney, Marc] Deldin says.

“This is really policing for profit, because instead of finding a crime, pressing charges, and allowing the forfeiture process to work out, they just went and seized the building and said, ‘Give us two cop cars,'” Deldin tells Reason. “There was no crime, and there was no forfeiture process. The goal was never to forfeit this property because Highland Park wouldn’t receive anything. The goal was to extort my client into providing squad cars.”

Well, of course it was extortion. That’s the nature of civil forfeiture settlements, perhaps all settlements if you want to get real about them. But the “thing” seized was a building, not cash or a bank account or some monetary substitute. It’s not as if you can settle the claim by giving back part of the building, the government keeping one wall and returning the other three to the Kozbials.

This is the nature of all forfeiture settlements when the “thing” seized isn’t fungible. If you want your seized car back, the offer will be to pay the government money for its return. Extortion? Of course. They kidnapped your car and demand money or you’ll never see your car again alive. Or you can go through the legal process, which will take years while your car languishes in a pound providing shelter for raccoons and junkyard dogs. Want to guess what condition your car will be in when you finally get it back? Want to guess what its value to you will be when it’s finally returned? Want to guess how you will get around during the years you don’t have a car? If you don’t want to guess, fork up the loot or you lose.

But this was a building, so even though it bears some similarities to cars in that it requires maintenance and can end up used by squatters, it may also be taken better care of than one car among hundreds behind barbed wire. Still, it represented a substantial investment by the Kozbials which, presumably, they were disinclined to lose. And why should they?

The ordinary settlement proposal might involve a payment, representing a portion of the value of the building since the building itself can’t be cut into pieces to be distributed between the parties. But here, they cut out the middle man and went straight for the prize.

People were right to be particularly outraged by the flagrance of this abuse. It’s bad enough that in rem forfeiture happens at all, but that it smells of the mayor and police chief of Highland Park chatting about how the cops need two new cars, and the mayor saying how he doesn’t want to spend more money as people will get mad at him for pissing away their taxes, and the chief, exclaiming, “Hey, I have an idea. Let’s seize the Kozbials’ building and make them buy us a couple cars if they want it back!” “Perfect,” the mayor replies.

But the real difference here isn’t much of a difference at all. They’ve just stripped away the facade that forfeiture isn’t a money maker, and hence a money substitute for taxes for municipalities to use like an ATM. Sure, there are worse scenarios, such as when forfeitures inure directly to the benefit of the police departments, whether be using the cars seized or the proceeds going to the police retirement fund, albeit as a substitute for municipal contributions.

It’s good that people can still get outraged by such a blatant abuse of authority as the government seeking cop cars in exchange for a baselessly seized building. It’s unfortunate that it takes something unusual to remind people that in rem civil forfeitures haven’t gone away and are still being used to swipe people’s property as a government cash machine.

15 thoughts on “Cop Cars and Cash Machines

  1. Bear

    Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
    I’ve seen cop cars and cash machines
    I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
    But I always thought I’d see my money again

  2. Guitardave

    So when the pendulum swings back, can we sue them for the more ephemeral things they’ve stolen?

    1. Frank

      When the pendulum swings back I hope to erect the Drug War Crimes Tribunal in an open field just outside Nuremberg, Pennsylvania.

      What? I plan on them getting exactly the “due process” they’ve been handing out for the last fifty years. They should have no problem with that.

  3. B. McLeod

    Two Fords, as proposed by a prosecutor named Ford.

    Why not a Mercedes? Or better, a Stutz Bearcat? The police should not have to motor about in Fords.

    1. Guitardave

      No, no, no, B.
      It’s been the favorite brand of fascists for almost 90 years.
      Henry and Adolf were mutual admirers, don’t ya know…
      Fords for the Feuer!!!

    2. JMK

      >Two Fords, as proposed by a prosecutor named Ford.

      Two cop cars, both alike in dignity,
      In fair Highland Park, where we lay our scene,
      From marijuana farm break to seized property,
      Where civil forfeiture makes civil hands unclean.
      From forth the fatal loins of for-profit policing
      A pair of Polish immigrants lose their home;
      Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
      Do with their loss highlight their city’s greed.
      The fearful passage of their prosecutor marked house
      And the continuance of their city’s graft,
      Which, but bipartisan reform, nought could remove,
      Is now the two minutes’ traffic of this blog;
      The which if you with patient minds attend,
      What here shall miss, our host shall strive to mend.

  4. Hunting Guy

    Buncha cheapskates.

    Should’ve gone with what the Dubai police force has. I’m surprised they don’t have a Healy.

    Aston Martin One-774
    Audi Q7, 4 nos
    Audi R8 .
    Audi R8, 2 more
    Bentley Continental GT
    BMW i8 (Hybrid petrol and electric)
    BMW M6 Gran Coupe
    Bugatti Veyron5
    Bugatti Veyron6
    Chevrolet Camaro SS
    Ferrari FF, 2 nos? $250,000
    Ford Mustang Roush12
    [No] Ford Mustang Shelby8
    Hummer H3
    Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4
    Lexus GS 35011 AED 250k
    Lexus RCF (RC-F)
    McLaren MP4-12C
    Maserati GranTurismo
    Mercedes AMG GT 63 S
    Mercedes G-Wagon Brabus
    Mercedes-Benz SL63 (AMG)
    Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
    Nissan GTR

  5. Paleo

    As a not-a-lawyer engineer, I cannot for the life of me fathom how a bunch of smart lawyers figured out a way to say that CAF does not violate the very plain “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” language in 5A.

    I worked on legal stuff with lots of lawyers over my career and have seen how they can parse commas and tweak definitions to try to make something say what they want it to say, but that language in the amendment is very directly expressed.

      1. Paleo

        I’ve always understood that sort of, but since the property is getting the due process for it to fit logically within the 5th that means that the property has to own itself. Which, well, ok I guess but when did ownership of the property legally transfer away from the original owner?

        1. SHG Post author

          The rationale is that the property forfeits to the sovereign upon the triggering event, not upon “conviction” as would be the case with a person. As I said, it’s a legal fiction.

  6. John M

    The Highland Park police chief may have wanted two new cars in case he crashed one while under the influence, as he reportedly did while a Detroit cop:

    Here in the Detroit area, I’ve heard Highland Park referred to as “Detroit’s Detroit.” It’s essentially completely surrounded by Detroit and has all the city’s problems, but few of its advantages or resources.

    1. Drew Conlin

      As someone also in S.E Michigan it may not seem relevant to give history of HP; but then again maybe it is. HP like much of the Detroit area has a glut of large abandoned former factories available on the cheap
      The town has been a political football having had many emergency managers depending on political party of current governor ( unsure of current status). Simply put HP is broke. So the fact that the police dept suggests bypassing courts etc tells me how desperate they are I think it’s wrong but will we see more of this in towns in similar dire straits ?

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