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California: Federal Appeals Court Overturns Car Seizure Policy
Federal appeals court allows motorists to sue police Los Angeles, California for impounding cars from innocent owners for thirty days.

Judge Alex Kozinski
Police in California can now be sued if they seize and hold the automobiles of innocent parties without good reason. The Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals on Wednesday gave the green light to a class action against the Los Angeles Police Department seeking compensation for owners who had their cars taken for 30 days or more -- racking up $1800 in fees -- because someone else with a suspended license drove the vehicle.

Los Angeles has a troubled legal history when it comes to taking automobiles. In 2005, the department had to update its policies in compliance with a Ninth Circuit ruling that said a city in Oregon could not grab the car out of a driveway while a husband was teaching his wife to drive (view ruling). When Los Angeles adjusted its policy, a state judge ruled the city was too lenient.

The stricter rule hit motorist Lamya Brewster on October 28, 2014 after she allowed her brother-in-law, Yonnie Percy, to drive her 2010 Chevrolet Impala to Chipotle. Brewster and her family had gathered at the hospital to help her six-year-old daughter who was undergoing surgery. Brewster had no idea that Percy's license had been suspended for failure to resolve a minor traffic infraction, and two properly licensed family members were with Percy at the time he was pulled over for allegedly making a rolling stop through a stop sign. They both offered to drive the car to a legal location after the stop. The also told the officer that the car's owner was minutes away at the hospital and could pick it up.

The officer insisted that he had no choice under California law but to take the car away. When Brewster went to an LAPD office with proof of ownership, a valid license, and money to pay all the towing costs and storage fees, the department refused to release the vehicle. So Brewster sued and the case came before the three-judge federal appellate panel, who considered only whether the seizure of the Impala without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.

The city insisted that the car had to be towed to protect public safety, and that it had to be kept for 30 days to deter unlicensed driving. The appellate court saw no reason to keep it for 30 days.

"The Fourth Amendment doesn't become irrelevant once an initial seizure has run its course," Judge Alex Kozinski wrote. "A seizure is justified under the Fourth Amendment only to the extent that the government's justification holds force. Thereafter, the government must cease the seizure or secure a new justification. Appellees have provided no justification here."

The court stopped short of striking down the law by pointing out that the 30-day impoundment is not actually mandatory. The judges strongly hinted to Brewster that she should update her argument to challenge the law on Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment grounds.

A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Brewster v. Beck (US Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, 6/21/2017)

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