To most Americans, attending a party at a downtown art institute is a fun, cultural experience. But for the 130 people attending “Funk Night” at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit in 2008, a fun night out morphed into a scene out of an action movie. Armor-clad police stormed the party, forced attendees to the floor, and seized 44 vehicles from those in attendance.

What heinous crime necessitated this treatment? It turned out that, unbeknownst to Funk Night patrons, the Art Institute failed to get a permit to serve alcohol. Using Prohibition-era reasoning combined with modern civil asset forfeiture law, the police determined that everyone there was complicit simply because they had attended the party.

And because the cars were used to transport their users to the party, the cars were also “guilty” and subject to seizure. Police even seized a car parked in a friend’s driveway over a mile away from the Art Institute. Attendees had to pay $900 each to have their vehicles returned.

Following this reasoning, every time a person enters a venue where alcohol is served, he would be responsible for ensuring the venue has a proper permit, even if he doesn’t plan on imbibing. Think about the last time you visited your local bar: Did you ask about an alcohol permit?

Thankfully, a federal district court judge held the Funk Night seizures unconstitutional, calling the incident part of a “widespread practice” of detaining everyone present at a venue without an alcohol permit, searching them, and seizing their cars simply because of their presence.

The judge, using her common sense and applying Michigan law inferring a mens rea requirement in statutes silent on the subject, reasoned that, in Michigan, if a person doesn’t know what he was doing is illegal, he can’t be guilty. And if the person driving the car isn’t guilty, the car can’t be guilty.

It may be hard to believe, but this isn’t an exceptional case in Detroit:

  • Jacque Sutton, a college student who was attending a party, had his car seized by Detroit police during a raid. Although charges against him were dropped, he was forced to pay over $1,000 to get his car back.
  • Krista Vaughn’s car was seized when, after dropping off her friend at a local bank, her friend made eye contact with other drivers while waiting for Vaughn to pick her up, and a police officer mistook her for a prostitute. Instead of treating this as a comical misunderstanding, the police seized Vaughn’s car, and she was required to pay a total of $1,800 before her car was returned.
  • Larry Rogers’s van was seized for simply driving down the wrong road. Police stopped him and seized his van for slowing down in front of a known drug house. He paid $1,150 to get his van back.
  • John Liangos’s car was seized because he spoke to a woman on the side of the road as he was driving by. This woman was an undercover officer, and his SUV was seized for soliciting a prostitute, despite the officer’s written report that he had not broken the law. He paid $1,800 to get his vehicle back.

Even with judges willing to restrain these abuses on a case-by-case basis, it’s unlikely the abuses of civil asset forfeiture will stop. While there are honest uses of civil forfeiture law, it’s a big money-maker for law enforcement, which often gets to keep the property it seizes. This sometimes leads to a focus on raising revenue rather than maintaining law and order. In 2007, for example, Metro Detroit agencies made over $20 million from seizures.

Civil asset forfeiture laws are broad and complicated, making it easy for law enforcement to seize property and difficult for people to challenge such seizures. In the words of former Macomb County, Michigan, prosecutor Carl Malinga, “It’s a money grab pure and simple; a sneaky way of getting a penalty on something prosecutors can’t prove. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Hopefully, Congress and state legislatures will wake up and rein in this practice.