DeCastro v. City of N.Y.

Decision Date30 September 2017
Docket NumberNo. 16–CV–3850 (RA),16–CV–3850 (RA)
Parties Angel DECASTRO, Michael Walker, Susan Calvo, Yong Zhang, Losif Mullaev, and Kelly Macon, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, v. The CITY OF NEW YORK, David Yassky, Meera Joshi, and The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York

Daniel Lee Ackman, Daniel L. Ackman, Esq., Joseph Terence Gallagher, Andrew M. St. Laurent, Harris, O'Brien, St. Laurent & Chaudhry LLP, Yonaton Aronoff, Foley & Lardner, LLP, New York, NY, for Plaintiffs.

Karen Beth Selvin, Angelie Thomas, Karen Beth Selvin, New York City Law Department, New York, NY, for Defendants.


RONNIE ABRAMS, United States District Judge:

Plaintiffs Angel DeCastro, Susan Calvo, and Kelly Macon bring this putative class action against the City of New York and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission ("TLC"), challenging the warrantless seizure of vehicles they owned or operated under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Bound in large part by the decisions of the Hon. Valerie Caproni in Harrell v. City of New York , the Court concludes that the City's policy or practice of seizing vehicles suspected of being operated for hire without proper licensing, as applied to individuals whose vehicles bear TLC license plates and to vehicle owners who have been found liable for a licensing violation in the 36 months before their vehicles are seized, violates the Fourth Amendment. The Court concludes, however, that the City's procedure for seizing and retaining vehicles allegedly subject to forfeiture does not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, both parties' cross-motions for summary judgment are granted in part and denied in part.1

A. Statutory Framework and Enforcement Policy
1. Vehicle Seizures

Under § 19–506(b)(1) of the New York City Administrative Code, it is illegal to knowingly operate or allow another to operate any vehicle for hire "without first having obtained or knowing that another has obtained a license" for the vehicle. N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 19–506(b)(1).3 A violation of § 19–506(b)(1) is a crime, punishable by a fine, a term of imprisonment, or both. See id.4

Under § 19–506(h)(1), any officer or designated TLC employee may seize a vehicle he or she has "probable cause to believe is operated or offered to be operated without a license" in violation of § 19–506(b)(1). See id. § 19–506(h)(1). Under § 19–506(h)(2), an owner's interest in an unlicensed vehicle for hire is "subject to forfeiture" if the owner has been convicted of or found liable for at least two violations of § 19–506(b)(1) within 36 months. See id. § 19–506(h)(2).

At least six TLC employees have provided testimony or declarations regarding the TLC's enforcement of these provisions. Four TLC inspectors have submitted declarations describing the procedures they follow when determining whether to seize a vehicle based on a suspected violation of § 19–506(b). See Decl. of Philip White ("White Decl.") (Dkt. 84); Decl. of Ronald Prioleau ("Prioleau Decl.") (Dkt. 85); Decl. of Sherif Issa ("Issa Decl.") (Dkt. 86); Decl. of Zbigniew Fimiarz ("Fimiarz Decl.") (Dkt. 87). Each of these inspectors states that, at the time of a vehicle stop, he obtains the driver's license and the vehicle owner's registration, then relays this information to an operator in a TLC radio room. According to these inspectors, the operator then enters this information into a New York State Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV") database and a TLC database to determine whether the license and registration are valid and whether the driver and vehicle are licensed by the TLC. The inspectors explain that, if a vehicle is unlicensed, a search in the TLC database will yield a response of "no records" or "unlicensed entity." A "no records" response means that "the vehicle owner never previously received a summons" under § 19–506(b)(1). An "unlicensed entity" response, on the other hand, means that "the vehicle owner previously received a summons" under § 19–506(b)(1). Each inspector states that TLC radio room operators "routinely inform" him "whether the database search produced ‘no records’ or a record of an ‘unlicensed entity.’ "

According to Edwin Mulero, the Deputy Chief of Enforcement at the TLC, TLC inspectors do not consider whether a vehicle owner or driver has been cited for a prior violation of § 19–506 in determining whether to seize her vehicle. Specifically, Mulero provided the following deposition testimony:

Q: Now [at the time of a vehicle seizure], would the TLC inspector learn whether or not that vehicle or that driver had previously been cited for a violation of Section 19–506 ?
A: We don't look. We don't get the history on the—at that car stop, we don't get the history if that vehicle's been seized before or not.
Q: Does there come a time later in the process when you do get that information?
A: Normally, there's what they call a 900 number that's generated. And if that comes up that vehicle has been seized before. But that does not play into any decision if that vehicle's going to be seized or not.

Decl. of Andrew M. St. Laurent ("St. Laurent Decl.") Ex. 3 at 77:6–20 (Dkt. 61).

Finally, Rafeael Torres, a lieutenant in the Uniformed Services Bureau at the TLC, has submitted a declaration regarding his experience in the TLC radio room, where he has been assigned on "numerous occasions" to provide field inspectors with information on vehicle owners and drivers from the TLC and DMV databases. See Reply Decl. of Rafael Torres ("Torres Reply Decl.") ¶ 1 (Dkt. 97). Torres states that records in the TLC database, to which he "and all others who operate the radio room have access," include "the summons history for each entity, licensed or unlicensed," including "the date the entity was summonsed, the disposition of the summons, and any fines paid on the summons." Id. ¶ 7.

2. Post–Seizure Hearings

When a vehicle is seized for suspected unlicensed activity, a hearing must be held within five business days before the Taxi and Limousine Tribunal at the City's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings ("OATH"). See 35 R.C.N.Y. § 68–17(c)(1). At the hearing, "a determination will be made" with respect to the following issues:

(A) Whether the Owner engaged in the Unlicensed Activity alleged in the summons[;]
(B) If the Owner is found to have engaged in such Unlicensed Activity, then:
(i) Whether the Owner has two or more violations of §§ 19–506(b), (c), or (k) of the Administrative Code in the past 36 months ...; and
(ii) Whether it is necessary that the vehicle remain impounded pending a judgment of forfeiture.


If the vehicle owner is found not guilty at the hearing, her vehicle will be released. See id. § 68–17(d)(1). If, however, the TLC tribunal finds the vehicle owner guilty and determines that the vehicle is subject to forfeiture on the basis of the owner's prior violations, the TLC "will retain the vehicle and commence a forfeiture action." Id. § 68–17(d)(2)(A).5

Between September 8, 2011 and May 24, 2016, the City did not initiate any forfeiture proceedings under § 19–506(h)(2). See St. Laurent Decl. Ex. 4. On October 27, 2016, Mulero testified that, to his knowledge, the TLC had never sought forfeiture of a vehicle that was seized on the basis of a § 19–506 violation. See St. Laurent Decl. Ex. 3 at 124:10–14. On April 24, 2017—as the parties were briefing their respective motions for summary judgment in this case—the City filed a forfeiture complaint against a non-party defendant. See Compl., City of New York v. Harris , No. 451060/2017 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 24, 2017).

B. Harrell v. City of New York

This Court is not the first to consider constitutional challenges to the City's warrantless seizure of vehicles based on suspected violations of § 19–506(b)(1). In Harrell v. City of New York , which is currently pending before the Hon. Valerie Caproni, a putative class of individuals and entities "whose vehicles have been seized by the TLC based on allegations of first-time violations" of § 19–506 claim that the City's alleged seizures of their vehicles violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Am. Compl. ¶ 94, Harrell v. City of New York , No. 14–CV–7246 (VEC) (Nov. 13, 2014) (Dkt. 24) ("Harrell Am. Compl.").6

On September 30, 2015, Judge Caproni granted the Harrell plaintiffs summary judgment against the City on their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims. See Harrell v. City of New York , 138 F.Supp.3d 479, 484 (S.D.N.Y. 2015). Judge Caproni held that "the City's procedure of seizing vehicles that are suspected of being used for hire without proper licensing is unconstitutional under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as it applies to vehicle owners with no prior violations in the preceding 36 months." Id. In ruling that the City's procedure violates the Fourth Amendment, Judge Caproni rejected the City's arguments that either the "instrumentality of crime" or "exigent circumstances" exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement justified the failure to obtain warrants before seizing the plaintiffs' vehicles. See id. at 489–92. In Judge Caproni's view, the City's argument that it could seize vehicles as contraband or as instrumentalities of crime "simply does not fly" because, unlike child pornography, "[s]traight tag for-hire vehicles are simply not contraband," and because the City "never intend[ed] to criminally prosecute" the alleged violations of § 19–506(b)(1). Id. at 490. The exigent circumstances exception did not apply, Judge Caproni reasoned, because the City's "intent" when seizing the vehicles was "to return them to their owner upon payment of the bond or penalty"—not, as the City had claimed, to protect the public from unsafe or inadequately insured vehicles. Id. at 491. In resolving the Fourth Amendment question...

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