Last month they prevailed when a judge ordered the return of virtually everything that had been taken from them. But the Ostipows’ victory was short-lived, for they soon discovered that the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Office had sold their property years ago, while their forfeiture case was still being actively litigated.
So, it’s back to court for the Ostipows. The couple filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, seeking damages for the wrongful theft of their property.
This case should be a clear call to all Americans that it’s long past time to rein in our nation’s abuse-prone civil forfeiture system.
That system started off with the best of intentions. In the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government and the states began to turn to civil asset forfeiture laws to enable the seizure of property used to facilitate crime, and to target the ill-gotten gains of the worst offenders—drug cartels, kingpins, and money launderers (think Tony Montana).
Over time, however, that narrow focus has been replaced by a broad grant of authority to seize and forfeit property from virtually anyone for a host of alleged crimes.
In federal law alone there are more than 400 statutes that authorize the seizure of property. And, per forfeiture laws at the federal level and in many states—including Michigan—law enforcement agencies get to keep the proceeds of successful forfeitures. This directly incentivizes them to seize property and use forfeiture as a revenue-generating tool.
This incentive structure has distorted the priorities of law enforcement officials in the past, and Gerald and Royetta Ostipow allege in their lawsuit that a lust for forfeiture profits did the same to the Saginaw County sheriffs.