Coleman v. Watt

Decision Date25 October 1994
Docket NumberNo. 94-1120,94-1120
PartiesMichael COLEMAN, and all others similarly situated, Appellant, v. William WATT, City of Little Rock, Arkansas, Appellees. American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, Inc., Amicus Curiae.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Gregory E. Bryant, Little Rock, AR, for appellant.

Paul D. White, Little Rock, AR, for appellees.

Before FAGG, Circuit Judge, HEANEY, Senior Circuit Judge, and LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

HEANEY, Senior Circuit Judge.

The central issue raised on this appeal is whether any of Michael Coleman's federal constitutional rights were violated when his car was seized and held for eight weeks by the Little Rock Police Department pursuant to a mandatory impoundment order issued by Municipal Court Judge William Watt. Coleman's suit against the City of Little Rock and Judge Watt was dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The district court denied Coleman's request for certification as a class action, and dismissed Coleman's claims under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Because we find that a one-week delay between an impoundment and a first hearing may constitute a denial of due process, we remand to the district court for further proceedings. On all other issues, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

On May 18, 1993, William Watt, an elected judge of the Little Rock Municipal Court, Traffic Division, issued an "Order" directing the officers of the Little Rock Police Department to impound any vehicle stopped for violating any one or more of some fourteen state statutes. 1 The order mandates that impounded vehicles be held until the registered owner pays all fees, costs, and fines related to the licensing of the vehicle. The order specifically targets "offenders charged with violations of non-moving misdemeanor and violation charges." As a rationale for mandatory impoundment, the order cites the increasing number of such cases, the resulting enforcement and adjudication costs, and the "significant security risk for the public and law enforcement personnel" created by "the lack of proper identification for the individual and for the vehicle."

The order provides that officers will assist the operators of impounded cars in gaining access to a telephone in order to make arrangements for alternative transportation. The order instructs the officer impounding the vehicle to inform the operator of the vehicle of the steps necessary to secure the return of the vehicle: first, an appearance before the Little Rock Municipal Court "on or before the assigned Court appearance date" to satisfy any "fines, costs or other sanctions as deemed necessary by the Court"; and second, the presentation to the court of current registration and insurance papers and a valid Arkansas driver's license. The order states that impoundment is mandatory in all cases, except those in which the Arkansas registration for the vehicle has been expired for less than ninety (90) days. In such cases, the officer is directed to exercise discretion as to the circumstances concerning the failure to renew the registration.

The amended complaint alleges the following facts. On September 15, 1993, Michael Coleman was stopped by a Little Rock police officer for allegedly committing various traffic offenses. At the time he was stopped, Coleman had in force adequate insurance protection on the vehicle, had paid the appropriate sales tax, and had taken all steps necessary to comply with registration requirements imposed by state statute. However, the records of the Department of Finance and Administration, the state regulatory agency responsible for collecting sales taxes on automobiles and issuing driver's licenses and license plates, were not promptly updated and did not reflect that Coleman had properly registered his vehicle. Because Coleman could not produce documents reflecting proof of insurance or proof of registration, the Little Rock Police Department seized and impounded his vehicle. Coleman alleges that at the time of the impoundment he was given no notice of any opportunity to appear before a judicial officer to present proof of his vehicle's proper registration and insurance coverage.

One week after the impoundment, on September 22, 1993, Coleman appeared before Judge William Watt to obtain the return of his car. Coleman presented a photocopy of his registration slip, but Judge Watt found this evidence insufficient. Judge Watt ordered Coleman to return to court on October 14, 1993, to present further evidence of proper registration, title, and insurance. Following the second hearing on October 14, Judge Watt again found Coleman's proof insufficient and refused to release Coleman's car. On November 9, 1993, after a third hearing, Judge Watt finally ordered the return of Coleman's car.

On October 19, 1993, Coleman filed a class action suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against Judge Watt and the City of Little Rock requesting both damages and injunctive relief. The amended complaint was dismissed by the district court on December 17, 1993, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The court ruled that (1) Coleman had failed to establish the requisite elements for class certification, (2) the impoundment did not violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, (3) Judge Watt's order did not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures, and (4) neither the order nor the impoundment deprived Coleman of procedural or substantive due process.

Coleman challenges each of these rulings on appeal.

II. ANALYSIS
A. STANDARDS FOR MOTION TO DISMISS

In considering a motion to dismiss, we must assume that all the facts alleged in the complaint are true. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 101-02, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). The complaint must be liberally construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Fusco v. Xerox Corp., 676 F.2d 332, 334 (8th Cir.1982). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint should not be granted unless it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts which would entitle the plaintiff to relief. Morton v. Becker, 793 F.2d 185, 187 (8th Cir.1986). Whether a complaint states a cause of action is a question which this court reviews de novo. Hamm v. Groose, 15 F.3d 110, 112 (8th Cir.1994).

B. CLASS CERTIFICATION

Coleman seeks certification of a plaintiff class under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. In order to obtain class certification, a plaintiff has the burden of showing that the class should be certified and that the requirements of Rule 23 are met. Smith v. Merchants & Farmers Bank of West Helena 574 F.2d 982, 983 (8th Cir.1978). Rule 23(a) provides:

One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all only if (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

The determination made by the district court will not be set aside unless there was an abuse of discretion. Smith, 574 F.2d at 983.

We find no abuse of discretion in the district court's refusal to certify this plaintiff class. Coleman's amended complaint contains only the barest of conclusory allegations, and fails even to state that Coleman will fairly represent the interests of the purported class. Coleman identifies the class as "others who are similarly situated" without providing any detailed guidance as to how the class is to be defined and identified. As the district court pointed out, Judge Watt's order mandates the impoundment of vehicles for a broad range of infractions, including safety, insurance, registration, and criminal offenses. In light of the widely varying circumstances which might trigger the order's mandatory impoundment provisions, Coleman failed to meet the requirements of commonality and typicality. In addition, we note Coleman's failure to justify his claim of numerousness with any reliable standards or estimates. That being so, the district court did not err in concluding that Coleman failed to meet his burden in establishing the existence of a group of identifiable plaintiffs appropriate for class certification.

C. INJUNCTIVE RELIEF

Because Coleman has failed to meet the test for class certification, his request for injunctive relief must be analyzed only as applied to him. In Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 111, 103 S.Ct. 1660, 1670, 75 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983), the Supreme Court held that equitable relief is available only where the plaintiff who had suffered a prior injury has shown that there is a "real or immediate threat that the plaintiff will be wronged again in a similar way...." A speculative or hypothetical claim of future injury is insufficient to generate standing. Shipman v. Missouri Dep't of Social Serv., 877 F.2d 678, 681 (8th Cir.1989).

Coleman has failed to satisfy this requirement, as he has not produced any evidence, or even alleged, that there is a likelihood that he will be subjected in the future to the impoundment policy. Accordingly, Coleman lacks standing to seek relief restraining the City from towing and disposing of vehicles pursuant to Judge Watt's order. Nor has Coleman established standing to challenge Judge Watt's implementation of the order. The district court did not err in dismissing Coleman's claims for injunctive relief.

D. JUDICIAL IMMUNITY

We turn next to Coleman's claim for monetary damages against Judge Watt. State judicial officers enjoy absolute immunity from suits for monetary damages for their judicial acts. Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978). The Supreme Court has...

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