Lee v. City of Chicago

Decision Date22 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-1503.,02-1503.
PartiesMark A. LEE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Cathleen M. Combs (argued), Danita V. Ivory, Edelman, Combs & Latturner, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Jane E. Notz (argued), Office of Corp. Counsel, Appeals Div., Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before KANNE, DIANE P. WOOD, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

KANNE, Circuit Judge.

Mark A. Lee was struck by stray gunfire while driving his car down a Chicago, Illinois street on June 9, 2001. In hopes of tracking down the shooter, Chicago police officers promptly impounded Lee's car so that they could later search for, retrieve, and analyze any bullets that might have become lodged in it. Ten days later on June 19, 2001, the City of Chicago informed Lee that they no longer needed his car for evidentiary purposes. But in a notice entitled, "Vehicle on Hold for Investigation," which the City had sent Lee two days after the shooting and impoundment, it had informed him that before he could retrieve his car, Lee either had to pay all applicable towing and storage fees or request a hearing. If he didn't pay or pursue this hearing process within thirty days of the date of the car's impoundment, the City told him it could "dispose of" his car—a euphemism for either crushing it or selling it at auction.

Lee wanted to retrieve his car as soon as possible, but he was unable to pay the amount the City demanded. So, he got a lawyer, and through him was able to negotiate an acceptable payment amount. But when he retrieved his car, thirty-one days after it had been impounded, he found that the City had spray painted large, bright-red, six-digit inventory numbers on its hood and its passenger's and driver's side panels. The City didn't pay for this damage, nor did it offer to discount or refund the money Lee had just paid the City to retrieve his newly redesigned car.

Lee sued. On August 29, 2001, Lee filed a complaint in federal court against the City of Chicago pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the City had violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and under Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process principles in two ways: (1) by requiring him, as the owner of a vehicle impounded for evidentiary purposes, to pay towing and storage fees, and (2) by spray-painting inventory numbers on his car without consent and without compensation. Lee also brought pendant state-law claims for implied bailment, trespass, and conversion. Lee filed an amended complaint on behalf of two classes of similarly situated individuals (those who had to pay fees and those whose cars were repainted).

The City moved to dismiss the amended complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). The district court granted the motion on January 30, 2002, holding that Lee lacked standing to challenge his car's spray painting because he presented no evidence that he maintained a cognizable property interest in the car at the time it was painted, and that he could not make out a claim under either the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment regarding the City's practice of charging towing and storage fees. Lee appeals. We reverse in part, holding that Lee has satisfied his burden in establishing facts sufficient to withstand a Rule 12(b)(1) motion and to confer standing to challenge the City's spray painting of his car, but affirm, on alternate grounds, the district court's dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the claims challenging the City's practice of charging towing and storage fees.

I. Rule 12(b)(6)

We examine a district court's grant of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion de novo. Johnson v. Martin, 943 F.2d 15, 16 (7th Cir.1991). In reviewing the grant of the motion, we view the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, taking as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and making all possible inferences from those allegations in his or her favor. Id. A motion to dismiss is to be granted only if "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957).

The City's Rule 12(b)(6) arguments addressed only the City's practice of charging towing and storage fees to car owners whose cars had been impounded for investigatory purposes. We therefore address Lee's two claims under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment challenging this practice separately and in turn.

A. Fourth Amendment

The parties do not dispute that the initial impoundment of Lee's car for evidentiary purposes was a reasonable seizure. Nor does Lee claim that the delay between the City's seizure of his car and the City's completion of its search rendered that subsequent search unreasonable. Rather, Lee claims that the City's refusal to return his car to him unless he paid the car's towing and storage fees or requested a hearing, when the City had already concluded its search, constituted an additional "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.1 Alternatively, he argues that the otherwise reasonable seizure of his car became unreasonable when the government's law enforcement interest in his car ceased but his possessory interest in the property survived. In either case, he argues the continued possession of the property by the government became a meaningful interference with his possessory interest and, thus, must be interpreted as a Fourth Amendment seizure. Lee then argues that this failure-to-return seizure cannot be deemed reasonable when its sole purpose was to enforce a demand, under threat of loss or destruction of the car, for payment of the car's towing and storage—a cost of law enforcement Lee argues should be spread among the public as a whole, who all both bear the risk of violent crime and receive the benefits of crime solved, rather than assessed to him alone, the unfortunate victim of this random occurrence.

In response, the City argues that when it concluded its investigation, the car became available for retrieval. At that moment, all "seizure" of the car had in effect ended. The subsequent conditioning of the car's release upon the payment of fees or the successful pursuit of a hearing is, in the City's view, a mere dispute about money—that is, how much the City was entitled to charge Lee for towing and storage—and does not raise Fourth Amendment concerns. Even if it did, the city argues that its policy of apportioning some of its law-enforcement costs of pursuing criminals to the victims who are most likely to benefit from that pursuit is reasonable.

The Fourth Amendment protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures...." U.S. CONST. amend. IV. In clarifying that the amendment addressed property interests in addition to privacy concerns, the Supreme Court defined the amendment's use of the term "seizure" as "some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in [his] property." Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 61, 113 S.Ct. 538, 121 L.Ed.2d 450 (1992) (citing United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984)). Whether, under this definition, a state actor's refusal to return once lawfully obtained property can amount to an unreasonable seizure, or, alternatively, transform a seizure from reasonable to unreasonable, is an issue of first impression in this Circuit, and to our knowledge has been addressed by only two other circuits—the Sixth, see Fox v. Van Oosterum, 176 F.3d 342, 351 (6th Cir. 1999), and the Second, see United States v. Jakobetz, 955 F.2d 786, 802 (2d Cir.1992)— both of which held that when the police hold onto evidence longer than it is needed for investigatory purposes, the owner has no recourse under the Fourth Amendment.2

The Second Circuit reached this position with rather limited discussion in Jakobetz. 955 F.2d at 802. In that case, the prosecution sought to introduce photographic evidence that the New York City police department had retained from an earlier investigation involving unrelated charges against Jakobetz. After those initial, unrelated charges had been dropped, New York law directed the police to return the photos, which the police failed to do. On that basis, Jakobetz argued that the failure to return the photos constituted an unreasonable seizure and that the prosecution should therefore be barred from introducing the photos as evidence against him in the subsequent proceeding. The Second Circuit disagreed. It didn't "think that the `seizure' alleged [was] one that deserve[d] the special protections provided by the fourth amendment," noting there was no authority for the contrary position. Id. At most, the court thought Jakobetz might be able to establish a violation of a statutory right. Id. The court went on to note that even if they were to find an unreasonable seizure, Jakobetz had failed to allege any wilful intent on the part of the police to retain the property unlawfully. And since the exclusionary rule seeks only to deter police misconduct, they could see no purpose in applying the rule. Id.

With more discussion than the Second Circuit's resolution of the issue in Jakobetz, a split panel of the Sixth Circuit in Fox determined that a failure to return property would not constitute a Fourth Amendment seizure. Fox, 176 F.3d at 349-50. In the majority's view, the amendment protected only an individual's interest in retaining property against illegal government intrusion, rather than an interest in regaining possession of that property. Id. at 350. To reach this conclusion, the court largely relied upon a remark made by Justice Stevens in his concurrence in Texas v. Brown, a case in which a plurality of the Justices...

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