Detroit, MI

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

Detroit is the largest city in Michigan, with a population of about 640,000 residents, and is located in the southeastern region of the state, within Wayne County. The city and the surrounding region have had well-documented local problems with prostitution, sex trafficking, and a wide range of associated crimes, spanning decades. Public health officials have found that over 90% of those being sold in street prostitution were addicted to illicit drugs, and substantial proportions have infectious diseases and continue to prostitute or to be sex trafficked, and often engage in sex without condoms. Among the wide range of crimes involved in the local sex trade have been assault the assault and rape of prostituted women and sex trafficked girls and boys, homicide, weapons and drug offenses, child endangerment, and prostitution and trafficking-related child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, or “child pornography” in most criminal codes). For example, in July 2022, a federal jury found a Detroit man guilty of child pornography and sex trafficking charges after a three-day trial in U.S. District Court. The man was charged with producing, transporting, and possessing child pornography in addition to sex trafficking. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for the child pornography conviction as well as up to life for the sex trafficking conviction. The case against the offender stems from a West Bloomfield Township Police investigation in which police detectives and officers executed search warrants in 2016 at the man’s home for fraud related to identity theft and missing money totaling more than $50,000. During one search, they found three women in the home who he claimed were his wives, and a cellphone with multiple sexually explicit images involving young children. The case was then turned over to Homeland Security officials. In the second search, they discovered a 25-year-old woman chained and locked to a stripper pole in the living room; he had restrained her after she tried to leave. Further investigation revealed the offender was sex trafficking the woman and three others out of his home.

More than one serial killer of prostituted women has also operated in the Detroit area, and sex buyers have also been robbed and killed by pimps and prostituted women.  In 1999, a police officer was killed by a sex buyer during a prostitution sting in Detroit. In January 2022, a new documentary was released that illustrates the devastating impact of the sex trade in the metro Detroit region. In April 2022, the Detroit City Council submitted a proposal for the establishment of the “Human and Sex Trafficking Task Force.”

In its efforts to address such crimes, the city has been one of the most aggressive in the United States when it comes to combating consumer demand, particularly through the arrest, prosecution, and sanctioning of sex buyers.  It was among the first to conduct reverse stings, beginning in 1970. From the 1990s to roughly 2015, Detroit had averaged several thousand male sex buyer arrests per year.  In addition to the volume of arrests, the city and county are noteworthy for their use of vehicle seizures and their associated fees and fines.  As of mid-2021, it appears that the number of sex buyer arrests per year has declined from the previous decade’s levels.

Auto Seizure Program

In Detroit and surrounding Wayne County, vehicles 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 sex buyers soliciting prostitution 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 sex buyer 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 sex buyers 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 the 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 reverse 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 Partners

Key Sources

National Assessment Survey (2012)

Auto Seizure:

Street-Level Reverse Stings:

Web-Based Reverse Stings:

Identity Disclosure:

Other Sanctions Applied to Arrested Sex Buyers:

Neighborhood Action:

Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

Documented Sex Trafficking and Prostitution-Related Violence, CSAM in the Area:

State Michigan
Type City
Population 639111
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