Friday, December 30, 2016

Ferrari's Farraari

This due process case is interesting because the Court of Appeals vacated a plaintiff's verdict and entered judgment for the County of Suffolk. The case is also interesting because the plaintiff's last name is Ferrari, and the case stems from the County's seizure of his Ferrari after Mr. Ferrari drove wildly while under the influence.

The case is Ferrari v. County of Suffolk, decided on December 27. Suffolk County had a law that allowed the government to seize your car if you violated the drunk driving laws. After the County seized the car, there was a post-seizure hearing intended to comply with the Due Process Clause, which restricts when the government can seize your property. The district court granted the County's motion for summary judgment, ruling that plaintiff had established the County routinely fails to prove that it needs to retain the cars even though the County establishes at these post-seizure hearings that the vehicle was used as the instrumentality of a serious offense, as well as evidence that the driver had previously been convicted of car-related offenses. The County also usually proves at these hearings that the driver poses a danger to the public with his car. The district court also ruled that the County did not address alternative measures to ease the hardship on the driver. Following this ruling, a jury awarded Ferrari $95,000 in damages to compensate for the seizure of his car. (News reports at the time said the plaintiff bears no family relation to the Ferrari company).

The Court of Appeals (Livingston, Leval and Carney) reverses and says Ferrari did not deserve to win the case and that the County is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Due Process Clause is basically a fairness clause. It says very little about what the government must do to protect you from unwarranted seizures of property or liberty. The rules for this derive from case law, as judges adopt multi-part tests to weigh the interests of citizens and the competing interests of the government. This case raises a new issue for the Court of Appeals, which poses the question this way:

when, at a retention hearing, Suffolk County presents evidence that a driver such as Ferrari has a history of intoxicated or reckless driving (evidence that serves to make out a prima facia case that retention pendente lite is necessary to protect the County’s financial interest and its interest in protecting the public) may the County, consistent with the Due Process Clause, then shift the burden of going forward onto the owner‐driver to point to a specific alternative measure that he is willing and able to sustain that might satisfy the County’s interests, and to demonstrate that such alternative measures would be feasible for him?
The answer to this question is Yes. Suffolk County's procedure is legal. The County may, after putting on prima facie evidence that it needs to immediately seize the car, require the driver to prove other feasible ways to protect the government's interests. In weighing the competing interests, the Court says that (1) the driver ma have an important interest in retaining the use of his car right after the arrest, but (2) plaintiff's interest in forcing the County disprove the feasibility of alternative measures to seizing the car is weak. "A requirement that Suffolk bear the initial burden of proving the infeasibility of alternative measures as part of its prima facia case does not greatly add to the protection already afforded such owners pursuant to Suffolk’s existing procedures." Also, the County's practice of requiring the vehicle owners to articulate an alternative measure does not have a material effect on the owner's interests because he already knows from County prior to the hearing that the availability of alternative measures will be discussed at the hearing.

You get the point. Each side must be given a fair shake at these hearings. Under the Due Process Clause, it does not take much for the government to give you a fair shake. Most of the Due Process Clause cases that I have seen over the years do not put the government through the ringer in this regard. Some fairness, even if that fairness is not compelling, is all it takes.   

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