New York City’s Vehicle Seizure Policy Found Unconstitutional

Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal

New York City’s procedure for seizing vehicles that are suspected of being unlicensed has been found unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Southern District Judge Valerie Caproni said the seizure of vehicles under the administrative code to ensure payment of fines is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and runs afoul of due process.

The putative class action of Harrell v. City of New York, 14CV7246, was brought under 18 U.S.C. §1983 by the owners of five vehicles that were seized in 2013 and 2014. They claimed that due process was violated because they were first-time violators and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was holding their property “hostage” without a pre-deprivation hearing or adequate notice.

The City Council enacted N.Y.C. Administrative Code §19506(h)(1) to deal with the “overwhelming majority of summons” that are defaulted by owners for using a so-called “straight tag vehicle” for hire. Seizures were authorized for vehicles that had been cited three times during the preceding three years.

In 2012, the council increased the penalties for violating the provision and reduced the number of triggering violations within the three-year time frame from three to two.

Following oral argument on Sept. 24, Caproni issued an opinion earlier this month noting that the city conceded the TLC doesn’t charge people criminally for violating the provision and that it has a uniform policy whereby it offers first-, second- and third-time violators a chance to avoid forfeiture by settling the case and paying a fine.

“The statute’s legislative purpose, structure and the TLC’s enforcement policies make clear the obvious: New York summarily seizes private property, prior to any adjudication of liability, to ensure that those who are guilty will pay the fine that may later be imposed,” Caproni said.

The city contended the seizures were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and were an exception to the warrant requirement. It argued the vehicles are seized in public, that they were the instrumentalities of a crime or are themselves contraband, that the seizures were based on probable cause and could be seized because they were inherently dangerous.

“None of these arguments has merit,” Caproni said, noting that it didn’t matter they were seized in public, that they were not, in fact, contraband nor were they “vehicles or instrumentalities of crime as that term is defined by the Supreme Court and Second Circuit.”

“More important, the express purpose for the city’s seizure pursuant to §19506(h)(1) is not to relieve wrongdoers of the instrumentalities of wrongdoing (after all, the vehicles are returned as soon as an alleged wrongdoer posts a bond or pays a penalty), she said. “The purpose of the statute is to ensure that vehicle owners pay their fines because the City Council believed that too many summonses were resulting in unsatisfied default judgments.”

As for “probable cause” as the term is used in the law, Caproni said, it “bears no nexus to the right that the seizure abridges,” because, by policy, forfeiture is not sought for first-time violators and is not even sought for second and third time violators.

The only probable cause, that exists, she said, is probable cause to believe the owner may be liable for a fine.

The judge easily rejected the city’s contention that the vehicles pose a danger to the society, noting that a vehicle is returned upon payment of a bond or penalty and is returned “whether it is roadworthy or not.”

Finally, she rejected the claim that seizure was needed to enforce the law. “There is no question that regulating vehicles that operate for hire is a legitimate exercise of police power,” Caproni said. “But summary deprivation of property is not.”

She went on to find that, because the seizure of first-time violators’ vehicles are unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, “it follows that the rule that postpones notice to the owner and an opportunity to be heard until after the seizure also violates the due process clause.”

The plaintiffs are represented by solo practitioner Daniel Ackman and Andrew St. Laurent of Harris, O’Brien, St. Laurent & Chaudhry.

“This has been going on for a long time and a lot of people probably let it go and moved on,” Ackman said Thursday. “But I think our clients showed a lot of guts and conviction in standing up to it.”

The city is represented by Assistant Corporation Counsel Karen Selvin.

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