Got Nice Stuff? Beware of the Saginaw County Sheriff
September 26, 2016 (Fault Lines) — In the vein of “this can’t be true, can it?” the Saginaw County Sheriff apparently has a habit of shopping the neighborhood, and even surrounding counties, for items his department can use or at least convert to cash. Describing himself as a modern day Robin Hood, he takes from the rich drug dealers and gives to the poor himself and his department. He likes having nice things: a decked out Ford Mustang GT, a targeted Cadillac Escalade, and even a classic 1965 Chevy Nova SS. And don’t forget all the other things that can be sold for cold hard cash.
Civil forfeiture: ain’t it great! It’s lucrative. It doesn’t require criminal convictions or even criminal charges. Apparently, it doesn’t even require a finalized forfeiture order…or does it?
According to a federal suit filed by the Ostipows, Sheriff William L. Federspiel and his department expanded his shopping spree to a neighboring county. The sheriff secured a warrant to search a second house on Gerald and Royetta Ostipow’s property where their son was living. With the execution of the warrant, deputies found some marijuana plants and seeds.
As they collected the contraband, deputies grabbed everything they could: dozens of animal mounts, tools, deer blinds, farm equipment, money, and even the classic 1965 Chevy. Not satisfied with their score, which originally targeted only the son, the sheriff returned with a second warrant to search Gerald and Royetta Ostipow’s home. Though they found no illegal evidence, no evidence of criminal activity, and no contraband, they found plenty of otherwise valuable personal property, even the cash in Gerald Ostipow’s wallet.
Unable to procure any evidence of crime related to Gerald and Royetta Ostipow, the deputies were not deterred. They returned several times in the weeks that followed. Arriving in plain clothes and in their personal vehicles while off duty, deputies continued to seize additional personal property.
Eventually the Saginaw County Prosecutor’s Office filed a civil suit seeking forfeiture of the real and personal property gathered by the sheriff. Not surprisingly, the Ostipow’s contested the seizure and forfeiture, saying it was not tied to illegal activity and they had no actual knowledge of any illegal activity of their adult son. The civil case lingered on for about eight years. Eventually, the court issued a final judgment, finding nearly all the personal property not forfeited:
After eight years of litigation, which included two appeals to the Michigan Court of Appeals and two appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court, the Tenth Circuit Court for the County of Saginaw, Hon. James Borchard presiding, (hereinafter the “Circuit Court”) issued a final judgment determining nearly all the personal property of Plaintiffs GERALD S. OSTIPOW and ROYETTA L. OSTIPOW be deemed not forfeited based upon the innocent owners defense to the forfeiture of property or otherwise failure of Defendant SAGINAW COUNTY – OFFICE OF SHERIFF to sustain their request for civil forfeiture.
Finally, a win for the innocent owners who had their property seized and held for eight years. Well, not so fast. It seems the property had already been sold and the proceeds utilized for police purposes.
These defendants converted, utilized, and spent the proceeds of the sale of personal and real property belonging to Plaintiffs GERALD S. OSTIPOW and ROYETTA L. OSTIPOW before there was a final determination as to forfeitability.
Remember that restored classic Chevy Nova? Like the Mustang, it proved valuable to Sheriff Federspiel and his department. As Tim Cushing over at TechDirt said: Drive it like you stole seized it. Before selling it, the sheriff racked up 54k miles joyriding.
Documents provided by Outside Legal Counsel show the department seized the Ostipow’s 1965 Chevy Nova SS on April 24, 2008, when the vehicle’s mileage was 73,865. [Sheriff William L.] Federspiel, who signed the vehicle title transfer form, sold the partially restored muscle car over a year later on June 4, 2009, for $1,500.
The vehicle’s title certificate filled out by Federspiel around the time it was sold says the mileage was 130,000 — 54,000 miles more than when the department seized the car.
All in all, it was discovered that all of the Ostipow’s property had been sold before a final determination on forfeitability. Imagine a life of property amassed and just gone.* Not because the government had a right to take it. Not because the police had a right to sell it. Simply because Federspiel likes nice stuff. Time to go shopping!
*While the Ostipow’s have sued in federal court, there remain many unanswered questions. It took 8 years, and the Ostipow’s ended up with a final judgment which rendered most property non-forfeitable. Presumably, this order would require the sheriff to return that property which was seized, yet not forfeited to the state.
However, the sheriff no longer has the property to return. Because the state order does not provide for any alternative to return of the property, it appears the Ostipow’s resorted to federal claims under conversion and 42 U.S.C. Sec 1983. Because there is no way to recover the actual property at this point, they are seeking larger damages based on state and constitutional violations.
Main image via Jeff Schrier | The Saginaw News