from the money-v-power dept
An opponent of asset forfeiture has arisen from an unexpected place. Honda’s finance division has taken the city of Revere, Massachusetts to court over the seizure and sale of a vehicle it still technically owned.
American Honda Finance Corp., based in California, alleged in its lawsuit filed Feb. 12 in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts that its constitutional rights were violated when a Honda Civic was seized in 2016 by Revere’s police department.
“Plaintiff brings this action to remedy a deprivation of its long-settled and fundamental rights to be free from unreasonable seizures and to due process of law under the United States Constitution,” American Honda Finance Corp. said in its 13-page complaint.
The complaint [PDF] makes it clear the company thinks this is some bullshit: seizing and selling a vehicle that still belongs to the company holding the lien. Until the vehicle is paid off, Honda still owns the car. But Massachusetts law enforcement doesn’t appear to care who owns the car so long as they get to profit from its sale. The narrative detailed in the lawsuit makes it clear zero effort was made to make the car’s real owner aware of the city’s plans for the seized car.
On or about November 2, 2016, HONDA obtained a purchase money security interest and lien in The Subject Vehicle.
On November 28, 2016, The Subject Vehicle was officially titled in the State of New York with Shanasia Hackworth recorded as the owner and HONDA recorded as the first priority lienholder.
On or about December 30, 2016, REVERE took possession and custody of The Subject Vehicle pursuant to REVERE’s police officers acting in the course of their duties as law enforcement officers.
On or about December 30, 2016, REVERE, through its police officers acting in the cause of their duties as law enforcement officers, and pursuant to laws enacted to further official state interests, directed Mario’s Service Center, Inc. to tow and detain The Subject Vehicle.
On or about December 30, 2016, Mario’s Service Center, Inc. towed The Subject Vehicle and retained The Subject Vehicle on behalf of REVERE as part of an “investigation.”
REVERE did not notify HONDA that The Subject Vehicle had been seized.
REVERE thereafter concluded its investigation. REVERE did not, thereafter, return The Subject Vehicle to HONDA or anyone else. Instead, REVERE authorized its agent, Mario’s Towing Service Center, Inc., to detain and dispose of the vehicle pursuant to Massachusetts G.L.c. 255, §39A.
REVERE did not notify HONDA that after the investigation ended that REVERE authorized Mario’s Towing Service Center, Inc. to detain and dispose of The Subject Vehicle.
REVERE did not ensure that its agent, Mario’s Towing Service Center, Inc., notified HONDA that REVERE had authorized detention and disposal of the Subject Vehicle.
On or about May 18, 2017, REVERE’s agent, Mario’s Towing Service Center, Inc., sold The Subject Vehicle and The Subject Vehicle was retitled through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation with HONDA’s lien not recorded on said title.
Under Massachusetts law the sale pursuant to Massachusetts G.L.c 255, §39A and subsequent retitling extinguished HONDA’s property interest in The Subject Vehicle.
At no time prior to the sale or retitling of The Subject Vehicle did REVERE or any person provide any notice to HONDA relating to The Subject Vehicle.
There’s a genuine question of property interest in a vehicle whose title still resides with the financing company. This can’t be the first time a company has complained about a vehicle of theirs being auctioned off without notice, but this is the first federal complaint I’ve seen directly challenging a state’s seizure of vehicles from drivers who don’t actually own the vehicles they’re driving.
This was filed ten days before the Supreme Court held that certain forms of asset forfeiture violate Constitutional protections against excessive fines. Honda’s complaint seems to anticipate the high court’s displeasure with abusive forfeitures and pulls no punches in its description of the program the city of Revere participate in. (Emphasis in the original.)
Massachusetts G.L.c. 255, §39A effectuates the Commonwealth’s interest in enforcing traffic laws and in protecting the public from hazardous street conditions. The statute provides a means for the state to compensate private parties who assist the state by towing and storing vehicles at the direction of police. The statute has, however, fallen out of step with modern developments in constitutional law which confirm that a duly perfected security interest and lien in a vehicle is a constitutionally protected property right.
A program that takes property away from the property’s true owner — an entity completely disconnected from the underlying criminal activity/accusations — appears to be a violation of the company’s Constitutional rights, if not the greater protections given to property owners by the state’s constitution. The suit alleges a host of violated rights, as well as conversion under state law, arguing the sale of the vehicle without notifying the lien holder is basically theft of Honda’s property.
Is it going to take the deep pockets of pissed off corporations to finally make a serious dent in abusive forfeiture programs? It might. This case may be more tow-and-sell than most forfeitures, but the principle behind it — the state depriving companies of their property without notice — is identical. If this case adds to the judicial dialog on forfeiture programs, I’m all for it.