On September 30, 2017, following a motion for summary judgment by our firm and co-counsel, Judge Abrams of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York found that the New York City’s policy of seizing vehicles suspected of being operated for hire without proper licensing, as applied to individuals whose vehicles bear TLC license plates and to vehicle owners who have been found liable for a licensing violation in the 36 months before their vehicles are seized, violated the Fourth Amendment. DeCastro et al. v. City of New York, et al.., No. 16-CV-3850 (RA), 2017 WL 4456554, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2017) This decision comes following a previous decision that we obtained granting summary judgment for plaintiffs in a case alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment by the City of New York in connection with the City’s practice of seizing vehicles to ensure payment of civil fines for certain violations of the City Administrative Code by first-time, non-TLC licensed drivers. The City ceased the practice after summary judgment was awarded. Harrell v. City of New York, SDNY 2014, Case No. 14-cv-7246.
NY Post | October 5 2017
Law 360| October 3 2017
By Linda Chiem
Law360, New York (October 3, 2017, 3:58 PM EDT) — A federal judge has ruled that New York City’s warrantless practice of seizing vehicles it assumes are being operated as unlicensed for-hire taxicabs violates the Fourth Amendment, but sided with the city in finding that the vehicle owners’ due process rights were not violated.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams issued a mixed ruling on Saturday partially granting summary judgment to named plaintiffs Angel DeCastro, Susan Calvo and Kelly Macon in a proposed class action against The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.
While the judge agreed with the drivers that the seizures of their vehicles were executed without a warrant and without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment, she agreed with the city that some of those vehicle owners were given the chance to promptly challenge those seizures with hearings before the TLC. As such, the city was granted partial summary judgment on the claim that it violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, according to the order.
Judge Abrams said she was largely bound by U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni’s September 2015 decision in a similar case called Harrell v. City of New York that challenged the TLC’s warrantless seizures. Judge Caproni held in that case that “the city’s procedure of seizing vehicles that are suspected of being used for hire without proper licensing is unconstitutional under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as it applies to vehicle owners with no prior violations in the preceding 36 months.”
“The court concludes that the city’s policy or practice of seizing vehicles suspected of being operated for hire without proper licensing, as applied to individuals whose vehicles bear TLC license plates and to vehicle owners who have been found liable for a licensing violation in the months before their vehicles are seized, violates the Fourth Amendment,” Judge Abrams said in Saturday’s order. “The court concludes, however, that the city’s procedure for seizing and retaining vehicles allegedly subject to forfeiture does not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The vehicle owners have claimed that the TLC’s practice of issuing summons to drivers and/or registered vehicle owners alleging a violation of Section 19-506 of the NYC Administrative Code and then executing a warrantless seizure of the car violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the New York Constitution and the City Administrative Procedures Act. Section 19-506 makes it unlawful to operate a taxi or for-hire vehicle in New York City without a TLC license.
To back their summary judgment bid in February, they highlighted Judge Caproni’s earlierSeptember 2015 ruling in the Harrell case challenging the TLC’s seizures of vehicles with “straight plates,” which are vehicles not licensed by the TLC.
The drivers in this dispute launched suit in May 2016 and amended their complaint in August 2016 alleging their due process rights have been trampled on as a result of the warrantless seizures. They claim the TLC seized more than 18,000 vehicles for purported violations of Section 19-506 between the third quarter of 2013 and the end of 2015 alone, according to their filing.
Those receiving summonses can retrieve their vehicles in three ways: by posting a $2,000 cash bond, by pleading or otherwise being found guilty and paying a civil fine of several hundred dollars along with towing and storage fees related to the seizure or by contesting the summons and being found not guilty in TLC administrative proceedings.
The city has defended the seizures, arguing that either the “instrumentality of crime” or “exigent circumstances” exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement justified the failure to obtain warrants before seizing the plaintiffs’ vehicles, according to its May cross-motion for summary judgment.
The city said at least two of the plaintiffs, Calvo and Macon, were repeat violators — each of whom racked up two or more violations of Section 19-506 within a 36-month period.
The plaintiffs’ attorney Daniel Ackman told Law360 that they were pleased with the decision.
“We are happy that Judge Abrams agreed with Judge Caproni that the TLC’s long-running practice of seizing vehicles without a warrant is unconstitutional and look forward to obtaining damages for the plaintiffs and the plaintiff class,” Ackman said.
A spokesman for the New York City Law Department declined to comment as they review the order and the city’s legal options.
The plaintiffs are represented by Daniel Ackman and Andrew St. Laurent and Joseph T. Gallagher of Harris St. Laurent & Chaudhry LLP.
The NYC defendants are represented by Karen B. Selvin and Angelie Thomas in the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel.
The case is DeCastro et al. v. The City Of New York et al., case number 1:16-cv-03850, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
–Editing by Alyssa Miller.
Updated: This story has been updated to include a response from the New York City Law Department.