Several years ago, a Michigan woman became the subject of one of most bizarre cases we have ever heard involving abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws and minor marijuana possession.
According to a report in the Detroit News, Linda Ross, a 26-year-old pizza delivery driver was stopped by police in the city of Westland back in 2013 and forced to watch as they towed her car away after an officer found her to be in possession of about a gram of weed.
Although Ross was never charged with a crime, police used the scope of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law to take full possession of her 2007 Ford Focus with no plans to ever return it. In fact, while Ross was in the process of appealing the seizure, the car was sold at auction, and the money went into the pockets of the Westland police force.
Essentially, the cops argued that since Ross had used the vehicle to go out and buy $20 worth of marijuana—a misdemeanor offense under state law—they were justified in taking over permanent possession of the car because it was used in a crime. And, in spite of them never actually charging her for the violation, the asset forfeiture law gives police the right to take ownership of any property they “suspect” is associated with criminal activity.
However, after fighting this battle for over three years, Ross has finally gotten a little justice.
A Michigan Court of Appeals ruled last week that police were not justified in seizing her vehicle because the marijuana she had in her possession was not purchased—it was actually given to her by a customer as a tip.
In a decision of 2-1, the judges found that since Ross had not knowingly driven the car for the purpose of buying illegal drugs, the vehicle, which the police had already sold, did not fall under the guidelines of seizeable property.
“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,” wrote the judges.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ruling is that the judges said that simply being in possession of marijuana did not entitle police to seize a person’s property and that the previous ruling on this matter was wrong.
“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,” the judges continued. “By that logic, a vehicle would be subject to forfeiture in all cases of mere possession.”
Unfortunately, the verdict does not entitle Ross to a new vehicle or any kind of monetary settlement that could be used to fund a replacement.
Since the car was sold at auction before the matter was totally resolved, the case simply ends with the court telling Michigan police that they were wrong to seize a vehicle based on marijuana possession alone and not to do it again. It will take filing additional lawsuits against the police department, perhaps even against the state, in order for Ross to have a fighting chance at receiving any reparations from this case.
Interestingly, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office said they may decide to appeal the latest decision and force the case back into court for another round.
Michigan lawmakers recently passed a legislative package aimed at preventing this type of legal thievery from taking place without providing definitive evidence that the seized property was used in a crime. Those bills are now in the hands of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.
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