Why police are going after drag racers this weekend

Aug 12, 2015 at 2:01 pm

It was another bloody weekend in Detroit. Over the last weekend, 28 people were shot, four of them fatally. It's the sort of news that gives Detroit a fearful reputation as a lawless place.

The police were quick to act, announcing that they are going after — drag racers.

That's right, the Detroit Police Department announced the organization of a task force to tackle the problem of illegal street racing, and they'll start descending on places where it takes place this weekend.

Of course, illegal street racing is, well, illegal. It irritates people who live near these informal drag strips with noise, crowds, and littering, all very serious problems, to be sure. On occasion, illegal street racing can kill, as when a Detroit teacher died when her car was struck in a street race seven years ago.

And yet you wonder why, when people are shooting at each other and four are shot to death in a weekend, the police announce a task force to crack down on late-night street races.

Might it be because the police are getting dollar signs in their eyes looking at all those sweet rides? It sure looks that way, since the stated goal of the task force is to seize vehicles. In a segment with Ronnie Dahl on WXYZ news, Commander Charles Mahone of the Detroit Police said, "Our goal is to going to be to forfeit as many vehicles as possible."

And the task force likely won't stop with seizing the vehicles of those doing the illegal street racing. As Dahl pointed out, in Wayne County, it could cost you your ride not just for participating in a street race, but even just for attending it.

That's due to a controversial practice known as "civil asset forfeiture," and it's something watchdogs say police often abuse. The ACLU points out, "Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government."

And Detroit's task forces just love to take cars. One example of that would be the infamous "Raid on CAID," in which dozens of black-clad, masked police burst into the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, which was hosting a Funk Night party, with guns drawn, and ordered all patrons to lie face down, and kicked to the ground those who didn't act quickly enough. The officers then seized all the vehicles that were at the gallery under the Michigan nuisance abatement statute. The event became so widely known that civil forfeiture critic and TV funnyman John Oliver called it "The Funkiest Shakedown in Human History." Four years later, a federal judge found the raid unconstitutional. The judge singled out the DPD for its "widespread practice" of unconstitutionally "'detaining, searching, and prosecuting large groups of persons" and impounding their cars based on their mere presence at a raid location." (Even after the city dropped all charges in the raid, the police demanded towing and storage fees from Funk Night guests whose cars were seized, more than $900 per car. One unlucky detainee's seized car was even reportedly stolen from the police impound lot.)

Viewed against this backdrop, the street racing task force starts to look like it could be less about preserving public safety and more about impounding dozens of pricey whips. Clearly, some enforcement opportunities are just more lucrative than others.