Wayne County encompasses the Dity of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs and unincorporated areas. The area’s economy has been troubled for decades, and crime rates have been high. Wayne County and the city of Detroit have been among the U.S. sites most aggressive about conducting reverse stings and – in particular – seizing autos of arrested sex buyers and charging high fees and fines.
Detroit is one of the most aggressive cities in the United States in arrested sex buyers, and Wayne County assists the city by administering the auto seizure program. Detroit was among the first to conduct reverse stings, beginning in 1970. From the 1990s through to the present, Detroit has averaged several thousand arrests of sex buyers per year. In addition to the volume of arrests, the city and its surrounding county are noteworthy for their application of auto seizures, and their associated fees and fines, to arrested sex buyers.
Auto Seizure Program
In Detroit and Wayne County, MI (as well as Flint), vehicles used in the commission of a crime may be seized, and retrieved after paying a fine plus towing and storage fees. This tactic has been applied to arrested sex buyers since 1988 in Detroit and Wayne County. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office operates the Vehicle Seizure Program. To retrieve vehicles, arrestees 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 $900 to retrieve their autos, and the penalty increases to $1,800 for second offenses. This generates substantial revenue, enough potentially to fully fund the police operations resulting in arresting sex buyers, assuming that typical yields of arrests occur for each reverse sting. According to a report from 1997, police seized 3,198 vehicles of men arrested for buying 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 where abandoned. Approximately $1.36 million was generated in vehicle seizure fines paid by the arrested sex buyers. Towing and impound storage fees are paid by johns in addition to the $900 (or larger) fines, so police did not need to use the fine revenue to reimburse towing companies or storage facilities.
We do not have data on the number of reverse stings it took to produce those 3,200 arrests in 1997, nor the precise number of officers were deployed and for how many hours in the operations. However, we have data from Detroit over a longer timeframe that can be used for estimation. The average reverse sting in Detroit lasts eight hours, uses teams involving one decoy and seven support officers, and produces seven arrests. Applying these averages to the 1997 data, we can estimate that it required 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 and sometimes court fees that should address – at least partially – those expenses.
While the assumptions underlying these estimates may be imprecise and actual expenditures can vary, the general picture that emerges is 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 either fully cover or help to defray the costs of reverse stings, if the fines and fees are set at a sufficiently high level and the courts follow through on imposing them and collecting the revenue.
- Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office
- Wayne County Sheriff’s Office
- Detroit Police Department
- Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Vehicle Seizure Unit:
- Reports on auto seizure:
- https://reason.com/blog/2018/07/20/michigan-man-files-civil-rights-suit-aft (2018)
- Reports on Reverse Stings:
- Associated Press, May 20, 1970. Suspended policewoman felt assignment was degrading.
- Detroit Free Press, March 20, 2008. 16 nabbed in crackdown.
- Associated Press, December 20, 2007. Sheriff: Driver stopped school bus to ask police decoy for sex.
- The Detroit News, January 17, 2005. Prostitute arrest plan unchanged.
- Detroit Free Press, December 17, 2008. 128 arrested in prostitution sting.
- Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1988. Detroit seizes cars in prostitution raids.
- Associated Press, August 16,1976. Detroit judge wages war on decoy prostitutes.
- Report on program for women involved in prostitution:
- Background on local prostitution: