6/8/2012Ohio: Federal Court Says City Can Keep Seized Cars
Federal magistrate rules that city has no constitutional duty to return vehicles impounded as a result of an accident.
A federal magistrate judge on Monday recommended a motorist's lawsuit against the city of Columbus, Ohio should be thrown out. Earlier this year, the city impounded the 2002 Saturn SC2 belonging to Michelle R. Mathis after she was hospitalized from a traffic accident. When Mathis was released, she had no way to get the car back. Her case was not helped by her handwritten demand to the court for $500 billion in damages.
On January 12, Columbus police grabbed Mathis's Saturn while she was being treated at Ohio State University Medical Hospital. Mathis was able to receive regular mail while recovering, but she never received any notification about the status of her car. On February 7, Mathis returned from her treatment and went to the impound lot in person, only to receive the run around. Mathis believes the city sold her car and holds a grudge against her.
"Plaintiff has and continues to have issues with the impound unit and thus would like to permanently restrain and grant an injunction on defendants and its officers, agents, servants, employees and attorneys from any further action resulting to any action with plaintiff," Mathis wrote in her complaint.
She insisted the lack of notice represented a violation of her due process rights, but the federal official tasked to investigate the claim for the court was not impressed.
"In this case, the undersigned finds that plaintiff fails to state a facially plausible federal claim," US Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Preston Deavers explained. "Plaintiff first attempts to a bring claim under the Fourth Amendment for unlawful seizure. From the facts plaintiff pleads, however, it appears that the seizure of her vehicle was proper. As both the Supreme Court and United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit have held '[t]he authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.'"
The judge maintained there was no constitutional problem implicated by a city refusing to return a car, as long as it was seized for a legitimate reason.
"Furthermore, plaintiff's claims do not appear to challenge the actual seizure of her vehicle, but instead focus on her inability to regain possession of her vehicle. Plaintiff's interest in regaining her vehicle, however, is outside the scope of the Fourth Amendment.... Plaintiff also fails to state a viable claim under the Equal Protection Clause."
The judge also recommended dismissal because no pattern of misconduct had been established.
"The mere fact that plaintiff had poor experiences with the towing of a vehicle she previously owned is not enough for the court to reasonably conclude that the city of Columbus has adopted an implicit custom or policy that encourages its employees to violate plaintiff's federal rights," Deavers wrote. "Accordingly, plaintiff fails to satisfy the requisite pleading standards for municipal liability."
The magistrate's recommendation is available in a 25k PDF file at the source link below.