from the illegal-parking-apocalypse-is-upon-us dept
A federal court delivers another blow to tireless enforcers of parking violations, ensuring we will soon be at the mercy of parking scofflaws everywhere.
First, it was the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court, ruling (twice!) that marking tires with chalk to track how long cars had been parked in spaces was an impermissible intrusion into people’s private property, comparable to the Fourth Amendment violation the US Supreme Court said occurred when officers warrantlessly placed a tracking device on a suspect’s car.
In between the two Sixth Circuit rulings, a California federal court said the same thing: find a less intrusive way to monitor parking. Chalking tires is a violation of rights.
More parking violations, more violated rights, says another federal court. The Southern District of New York, handling a lawsuit filed by a finance company against the city that towed and impounded a vehicle it held the lien on, has declared the warrantless seizure of cars over unpaid fines and fees to be unconstitutional. (via FourthAmendment.com)
Santander Consumer USA, which held the lien to Kate Mensah’s vehicle, sued both the City of Yonkers and its partner in these constitutional violations, APOW Towing.
Santander’s claims have already been settled. The decision [PDF] briefly discusses this victory before moving on to award the company nearly $100,000 in legal fees.
The background is this: Santander financed the 2017 Nissan purchased by Kate Mensah. The City of Yonkers towed and impounded the Nissan over an expired registration and unpaid parking tickets. Mensah requested a hearing over the fines, resulting in some of them being dismissed. The remaining amount ($1,367.63) had to be paid before the vehicle would be released from the impound. Mensah agreed to a payment plan and completed the payoff roughly two months after the car was towed.
However, before the car was towed, Mensah had defaulted on the loan, putting it back in Santander’s legal possession. The company, however, had not yet taken physical possession of the Nissan. So, when Mensah went to get “her” car, she was told Santander had taken possession of it. Santander did not actually remove the car from impound until October 2020.
Santander sued in June 2020, shortly after discovering where its car currently resided. In April 2021, Mensah filed a motion to intervene, claiming the city had unlawfully deprived her of use of her car from January 2020 to the date Santander repossessed the car.
Santander won this battle. It received an agreement and settlement from the city mandating that it immediately contact lienholders when towing and impounding vehicles.
Good stuff. But it gets better. The court also sided with Mensah, whose vehicle technically did not belong to her at the point it was towed by the city. The court says she still had a property interest in the defaulted vehicle.
Yonkers argues that Mensah lacks standing to challenge the seizure of the Vehicle because, having defaulted on her loan payments to Santander, Mensah lost any property rights in the Vehicle. The Court disagrees.
“The Second Circuit has held that a plaintiff who has purchased a vehicle through an
installment plan may retain a property right in the vehicle if [s]he has made substantial payments
on the agreement.” Maxineau v. City of New York (E.D.N.Y. June 18, 2013) Here, Mensah took out a $47,160 loan on the Vehicle, payable in $655 monthly installments. By the date of Santander’s repossession of the Vehicle, Mensah owed an outstanding balance of $29,951.55 on the loan. “[T]he Court concludes on this record that [Mensah] had enough equity in the Nissan to have a property interest in the vehicle under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The city argued this was all constitutional because it was obligated to “protect the public from the operation of such expired and suspended vehicles.” How much the operation of untaxed vehicles actually endangers the public is never specified in the city’s arguments. And the city appears to shirk this stated duty once it has collected the fines that prompted the towing in the first place.
Although the release required Mensah to certify that she would re-register the Vehicle before operating it on public streets, once she paid the outstanding tickets, “any restraint by [Yonkers] for [Mensah] to obtain her Vehicle from [APOW] was removed and [Mensah] had no more obligation to [Yonkers] that would prevent [her] from obtaining her Vehicle and having her Vehicle returned to her by [Yonkers].” Thus, according to Yonkers’ policy, once the fines are paid, “[t]he vehicle is returned whether it is [registered] or not . . . .” Thus, Yonkers’ public safety argument fails, and the Court finds no other justification for Yonkers’ warrantless seizure of the Vehicle.
The seizure was unsupported. And then there are the problems with due process.
Turning to the Fourteenth Amendment, Yonkers claims that it provided Mensah with notice prior to the Vehicle being towed, but states that Mensah did not receive said notice because she “changed addresses without advising the City and New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.” However, Yonkers does not provide the Court with any documentation of such a letter, and, in fact, an employee with the PVB [Parking Violations Bureau] admits in an affidavit that because “the PVB only learned of th[e] Vehicle’s expired registration at approximately 1:00AM on January 24, 2020[,] there was no reasonable way for the PVB to notify [Mensah] to have her arrange for a tow of this Vehicle.”
The conclusion? Warrantlessly towing vehicles over unpaid fines and fees violates the Constitution. Twice.
In sum, like the defendants in Harrell, Rosemont, and Grimm, Defendants seized the Vehicle without a warrant, notice, or pre-deprivation hearing. And unlike in Duffy, Defendants did not warn Mensah in person or otherwise that they were going to tow the Vehicle. Thus, in the absence of pre-towing notice, Defendants’ warrantless seizure of the Vehicle violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and Mensah is entitled to summary judgment on these claims.
This will undoubtedly be appealed. But the city of Yonkers should take a look at revising this process so it provides more Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment for vehicle owners. Otherwise, it may find itself having to terminate this form of parking enforcement completely if the next judiciary level decides to convert the lower court’s ruling into binding precedent.