Detroit, MI

Tactics Used

Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Detroit has well-documented local problems with prostitution and sex trafficking, spanning decades.  More than one serial killer of prostituted women has also operated in the Detroit area, and johns have also been robbed and killed by pimps and prostituted women.  Public health officials find over 90% of those providing street prostitution are addicted to illicit drugs, and substantial proportions are HIV positive and continue to prostitute or be trafficked.

The city is one of the most aggressive cities in the United States when it comes to the arrest and prosecution of attempted sex buyers.  It was among the first to conduct reverse stings, beginning in 1970.  From the 1990s to the present, Detroit has averaged several thousand john arrests per year.  In addition to the volume of arrests, the city and county are noteworthy for their use of auto seizures and its associated fees and fines.

Auto Seizure Program

In Detroit and surrounding Wayne County, autos used in the commission of a crime may be seized. They may only be retrieved after paying a fine and additional towing and storage fees.  First implemented in 1988, this tactic is now applied to all johns soliciting from a personally-owned vehicle. Formally known as the Vehicle Seizure Program, it is operated by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. To retrieve his vehicle, an arrested john must provide:

  • Notice of Seizure
  • Valid driver’s license or state ID
  • Vehicle registration or vehicle title
  • Money Order or Cashier’s Check – NO cash or personal checks

First-time offenders must pay a $900 retrieval fee; the penalty increases to $1,800 for second offenses.  As this generates substantial revenue, city and county police frequently channel funds into future prostitution investigations and stings.  According to a report from 1997, police seized 3,198 vehicles from men attempting to buy sex.  At that time, the penalties were lower:  $650 for a 1st offense, and $1,300 for a 2nd.  Over 2,000 of the arrestees paid the first offense fine of $650, and over 400 paid the second offense fine of $1,300.  Thirty-six cases were contested, and the police department prevailed in 31 of those cases and collected the fines.  The rest of the vehicles were either returned to their owners or abandoned.   Approximately $1.36 million was generated from seizure fees.  As towing and impound fees must be financed by the johns themselves, police need not use the generated revenue to reimburse towing companies or storage facilities.

Although it is unclear how many reverse stings were needed to net 3,200 arrests in 1997, our discussions with Detroit law enforcement may provide insight into overall sting procedure. Operations last an average of eight hours, using teams of one decoy and seven support officers. While investigations have at times netted upwards of 100 customers, the average john sting results in 7 arrests.  Applying these averages to the 1997 data, we can estimate that it took about 440 reverse sting teams working eight-hour operations to make the arrests.  If the average cost of a reverse sting was $3,000 ($1,900 for 64 hours of direct labor, and $1,000 for indirect costs), then the police department expended about $1.32 million in conducting reverse stings.  There are expenses incurred by courts after the point of arrest, but courts typically impose a $500 fine.

While actual expenditures may vary, overall estimates suggest that vehicle seizure fines and court fees appear to cover what it costs to arrest and process sex buyers in Detroit.  Note that this cannot be generalized to most other cities, since few impose such heavy fines and fees.   But it does illustrate how fines and fees can be used to help cover or defray the costs of reverse stings.  Similarly, the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco (a “john school”) is fully funded by fee revenue – all educational program and court processing expenses are covered by fee revenue, and about 1/3 of the cost of reverse stings are covered.  In addition, one third of the FOPP fee revenue is used to support programs for survivors of commercial sex and sex trafficking.

Key Sources


State Michigan
Type City
Population 916952
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