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RACKLEY v. CITY OF NEW YORK

February 26, 2002

LUTHER RACKLEY, PLAINTIFF(S),
V.
CITY OF NEW YORK, ET AL., DEFENDANT(S).



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sprizzo, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Luther Rackley ("plaintiff" or "Mr. Rackley") brings the above-captioned action against the City of New York ("the City") and individual City employees (collectively, "the City Defendants"), and New York City Marshal George Airday ("defendant Airday").*fn1 Plaintiff alleges that he is entitled to relief because the procedures the City uses to enter judgments for unpaid parking tickets and subsequently to seize street-parked cars pursuant to such judgments ("the Seizure Process" or "the Process") — as implemented by both the New York City Parking Violations Bureau ("the PVB") and defendant Airday — infringes on plaintiffs rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The City Defendants and defendant Airday each move for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Pr. 56.*fn2 Plaintiff also cross-moves for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants defendants' motions and denies plaintiffs motion.

I. BACKGROUND

The evidence before the Court on the instant motions demonstrates, at a minimum, that during the time period relevant to the instant action Mr. Rackley violated New York City's parking rules and regulations on multiple occasions. Mr. Rackley, also, it seems, did not always timely pay the fines that resulted from such violations.*fn3 as a result, the City of New York issued warnings of default judgments and, ultimately, multiple default judgments against Mr. Rackley for his alleged failure to pay the fines and penalties to which the City claimed entitlement. Finally, defendants twice seized plaintiffs car — on July 21, 1998 and October 21, 1998 — to satisfy the judgments they claim he then owed. See Affirmation of Michael S. Gruen dated April 30, 2001 ("Gruen Affirmation I.") at ¶¶ 48-78. The instant dispute addresses the propriety of defendants' actions in both issuing the above-described default judgments and then seizing plaintiffs car.

Not surprisingly, plaintiff takes issue with defendants' actions. In particular, he complains that his car was not "tow eligible" on the occasions the City seized it. Plaintiff contends that, at the time of each seizure, the proper judgment amount attributable to his vehicle was below the $230 "tow eligible" threshold required for defendant Airday to seize plaintiffs car.*fn4 Plaintiff says this threshold was not met because defendants committed errors during the Seizure Process.*fn5 By plaintiffs account, these alleged errors both resulted from and are evidence of the constitutional infirmities of the Seizure Process — a process which plaintiff also argues is in violation of several provisions of New York State law. Plaintiffs federal claim, made pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is that the Seizure Process violates both his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures*fn6 and his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

Defendants respond that the Seizure Process does not violate plaintiffs rights under either the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments. Specifically, defendants assert that the challenged procedures comport with the applicable New York State laws and are constitutionally reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Defendants further argue that plaintiff has failed to present competent evidence to support his contention that the outstanding judgments against him totaled less than the "tow eligible" amount on either of the dates his car was seized. Moreover, defendants contend that even if they had committed errors while implementing the Seizure Process, plaintiff has failed to establish a deprivation of property without due process. Finally, regarding plaintiffs claims against individual City employees and defendant Airday, defendants assert that plaintiff has not demonstrated — as he must — that any of these individuals: (1) were personally involved in authorizing the unconstitutional seizure of plaintiffs car; (2) violated clearly established constitutional rights; or (3) violated clearly established constitutional rights while acting in an objectively unreasonable way with respect to their knowledge that such actions were unconstitutional.

II. DISCUSSION

A court may grant summary judgment only if it determines that there are no genuine issues of material fact based on a review of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file and affidavits. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must construe the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). If no genuine issue as to any material fact exists, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

A. Plaintiffs Fourth Amendment Claim

Plaintiff relies primarily on his rights under the Fourth Amendment in support of his complaint. The Court will therefore address plaintiffs Fourth Amendment arguments first. What plaintiff claims, in essence, is that defendants acted in derogation of his rights by seizing his car without a valid warrant. In making this accusation, plaintiff argues initially that a warrant was absolutely necessary to seize his car. Accepting this premise as correct, he then argues that the Seizure Process is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment by challenging, inter alia: (1) the form of the PVB executions defendants use to identify cars for seizure; (2) the lack of procedural safeguards in the Seizure Process; and (3) defendants' noncompliance with New York law.*fn7 According to plaintiff, the defects he identifies in the Seizure Process — individually and combined — make it unconstitutional. In short, plaintiff believes that defendants' actions against him and his car constituted unreasonable seizures. The Court disagrees.

The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to the states — and to municipalities and municipal subdivisions acting under color of state law — through the Fourteenth Amendment. See, e.g., Soldal v. Cooks County, Illinois, 506 U.S. 56, 61 (1992). Moreover, the Fourth Amendment's protections extend to both civil and criminal proceedings. See id. at 67-68. Additionally, a property seizure (the type of action challenged by plaintiff) "occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in [his] property." Id. at 61 (internal quotations omitted). In the instant case, it is undisputed that seizures occurred when defendants twice towed plaintiffs car. The parties disagree, however, regarding whether such seizures were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

As the Soldal Court emphasized, "reasonableness is still the ultimate standard under the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 71. For the following reasons, the Court finds that, as a matter of law, defendants' seizures of plaintiffs car were reasonable and that no warrant was required before defendant Airday twice removed plaintiffs vehicle from the City's streets. In Florida v. White, 526 U.S. 559 (1999), the Supreme Court addressed a challenge to a warrantless seizure of a car by Florida police. The police had seized the car, pursuant to a Florida contraband statute, while it was parked in respondent's employer's parking lot. See White, 526 U.S. at 566. In the course of reversing the Florida Supreme Court and finding the seizure constitutional, Justice Thomas addressed issues of original intent under the Fourth Amendment and discussed the existing, relevant Supreme Court search and seizure jurisprudence. His majority opinion noted the long-standing "special considerations [under the Fourth Amendment] in the context of movable items" such as cars, and then went on to declare:

In addition to [the aforementioned special considerations] our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has consistently accorded law enforcement officials greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places. . . . [W]e have drawn upon the established distinction between a warrantless seizure in an open area and such a seizure on private premises.

White, 526 U.S. at 565-66 (citation and internal quotations omitted). The Court then addressed another seminal case in this area, G.M. Leasing Corp. v. United States, 429 U.S. 338 (1977), noting:

There we considered whether federal agents violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to secure a warrant prior to seizing automobiles in partial satisfaction of income tax assessments. We concluded that they did not, reasoning that "[t]he seizures of the automobiles in this case took place on public streets, parking lots, or other open places, and did not involve any invasion of privacy."

White, 526 U.S. at 566 (citation omitted) (alteration in original).

From these precedents, the White Court concluded there was no invasion of privacy because the Florida police seized the car at issue from a public place; the Court therefore found that, in accordance with its existing jurisprudence and relevant constitutional principles, there was no Fourth Amendment violation. See id. The principles reaffirmed in White apply with equal force to the situation currently before this Court. Cf. Soldal, 506 U.S. at 71 (observing, hypothetically, that if officers had made a warrantless seizure pursuant to a court order, "a showing of unreasonableness . . . would be a laborious task indeed"); see also G.M. Leasing, 429 U.S. at 352 n. 18 (noting that a warrant is not necessary to seize a street-parked car in satisfaction of a United States tax lien, not only due to the lack of a privacy invasion, but also because "a tax assessment is given the force of a judgment, and if the amount assessed is not paid when due, administrative officials may seize the debtor's property to satisfy the debt" (internal quotations omitted)).*fn8

Moreover, contrary to plaintiffs argument, these principles apply outside both the federal income tax and Florida contraband seizure contexts. In Schneider v. County of San Diego, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ("the Ninth Circuit") upheld the warrantless seizure by the County of San Diego of a number of vehicles parked in an open field — and in plain view of a local highway — on appellant's property. See 28 F.3d 89, 90-92 (9th Cir. 1994). Defendants determined that the vehicles were parked in violation of relevant zoning laws and subsequently entered an abatement order demanding their removal. See id. at 90-91. Following a hearing denying plaintiffs challenge to the abatement order,*fn9 defendants seized the vehicles — without a warrant — due to ...


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