A US district court judge ruled Tuesday that James B. Ferrari had a point when he sued Suffolk County, New York over its seizure of his 2003 Ferrari 360 Spider. Ferrari was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) in the city of Bellport on May 26, 2009. That gave county officials an excuse to grab a car that sold for $190,000 when new.
“Ferrari is not the most sympathetic plaintiff, to put it mildly,” Judge Joanna Seybert wrote, overruling the county’s motion to dismiss the case. “But the Due Process clause protects everyone — even repeated drunk drivers. Here, Ferrari has adequately pled that Suffolk County violated his due process rights.”
The accusations against Ferrari were significant. Police claim he drove 100 MPH, crossed a double-yellow line, admitted to the officer that he had consumed alcohol and was on thirteen prescription pills. Ferrari helpfully pointed to drug paraphernalia during the stop, saying, “The crack pipe’s mine.” Ferrari also had a very long list of past traffic violations.
The Fourteenth Amendment states that nobody can be deprived of their property without due process of law. In Suffolk County, vehicle owners who have not been convicted of any crime are offered “retention hearings” to challenge the vehicle seizure. A 2002 federal appellate case, Krimstock v. Kelly, articulated the need for such a hearing to establish the necessity and legitimacy of continued retention of a vehicle.
“In direct defiance of both the Fourteenth Amendment due process requirements articulated in Krimstock and the Suffolk County Code, the defendants herein knowingly train, and/or deliberately permit, the hearing officers who ‘preside’ over retention hearings to deliberately and systematically refuse to comport with the requirements of due process,” Ferrari’s lawyer argued.
The procedure in Suffolk County is merely to establish the validity of the initial arrest and then leave it up to the vehicle owner to prove a hardship that would justify the car’s return. In 2004, a jury ruled against Suffolk County on this very point. Although Judge Seybert was merely ruling on a procedural motion and not coming to a final decision, it is clear Suffolk County is going to have a hard time winning the case. Seybert blasted the retention hearing conducted on June 9, 2009 by Justice John DiNoto.
“At no time did Justice DiNoto take issue with, or even acknowledge, the county’s multiple, flagrant misstatements of the law,” Seybert wrote. “Beyond the per se violation stemming from Justice DiNoto’s failure to issue a Krimstock-complaint ‘statement of findings,’ other due process concerns scream out from the face of hearing transcript. Instead of trying to meet its Krimstock/Canavan burden, the county instead spent the hearing enunciating one erroneous legal principle after another, from a bizarre effort to shift the burden, to a nonsensical interpretation of Krimstock as ‘dicta.’”
Seybert found it “quite plausible” that DiNoto impounded the Ferrari because he misunderstood the law and acted in an irrational manner. The judge also found little merit in the county’s attempt to argue that keeping the Ferrari would prevent Ferrari from driving drunk again because he had another vehicle at his disposal.
“Indeed, if impounding his Ferrari causes Ferrari to instead drive his Land Rover, impoundment might actually undermine the county’s interest in protecting public safety,” Seybert wrote. “After all, holding other factors equal, the basic ‘laws of physics’ dictate that the much larger, much heavier Land Rover would do much greater damage in a collision than the lighter, smaller Ferrari.”
The case can now go to trial. Ferrari is seeking $500,000 in compensatory damages. A copy of the order is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.