Topic:
MOTOR VEHICLE REGISTRATION; MOTOR VEHICLES; LEGISLATION;
Location:
TOWING;
Scope:
Court Cases; Connecticut laws/regulations;

OLR Research Report


The Connecticut General Assembly

OFFICE OF LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH




May 8, 1995 95-R-0761

TO:

FROM: George Coppolo, Chief Attorney

RE: Abandoned and Unregistered Vehicles

You asked us to review the attached materials regarding the constitutionality of HB 6828, Files 183 and 349. We are not authorized to render legal opinions and this memo should not be considered one.

SUMMARY

The materials include a memo dated April 27, and one dated April 28, and a copy of two cases: Tedeschi v. Blackwood, 410 F. Supp. 34 (1976), and Sutton v. City of Milwaukee, 521 F. Supp. 733 (1981).

The memos appear to be conclusions drawn from the cases, especially the Tedeschi case which is a Connecticut federal district court decision. Thus, our memo focuses on these two cases. It should be noted that because of the timeframe for completing this memo we were not able to conduct exhaustive research on the subject.

It appears, based on a reading of Tedeschi and Sutton, that a law allowing the towing of cars not having a valid registration without prior notice would be subject to a constitutional challenge based on the due process clause. But, Tedeschi dealt primarily with the lack of either a pre or post seizure hearing. The Tedeschi holding does not explicitly require a pre seizure notice with regard to unregistered cars. That issue does not appear to be resolved by Tedeschi.

The Sutton case contained in the materials goes beyond Tedeschi in that it mandates a pre seizure notice and hearing in all but emergency cases which the court defines as involving either unsafe conditions or a hinderance to the efficient movement of traffic. But, the case was overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which held that it is not a violation of due process to tow an illegally parked car without first giving the owner notice and an opportunity to be heard.

Tedeschi v. Blackwood

In Tedeschi v. Blackwood, 410 F. Supp. 34 (1976) a three judge district court panel held that a Connecticut statute authorizing a police officer, who had determined a motor vehicle was abandoned, unregistered, or dangerously parked, to have the vehicle towed and stored without a pre or post seizure hearing was unconstitutional under the due process clause because it did not give the vehicle owner the right to a hearing to contest the legitimacy of the seizure either before or after it.

This case involved a challenge under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment to provisions of CGS 14-150) and (c). The statute empowered a police officer or motor vehicle inspector, who has determined that a motor vehicle was either abandoned, unregistered, or dangerously parked, to have the vehicle towed to a garage for storage. The statute further provided that all towing and storage charges which were accordingly incurred would become a lien on the vehicle and that the lien could in time be foreclosed by the garage through its sale of the vehicle. The statute, however, did not afford a right to a hearing to a person wishing to contest the application of either its towing or its lien provisions to his vehicle.

The court acknowledged that the towing without a prior hearing of an apparently abandoned, unregistered, or dangerously parked vehicle might be constitutionally justified as a deprivation of minimal duration necessary to the state's control and regulation of motor vehicles. It noted that this might especially be true for vehicles left unattended that obstructed traffic or otherwise caused a potentially dangerous situation. But the court noted that seizing and towing a vehicle unquestionably involves an important deprivation of property and can be justified without a prior hearing only under narrowly defined circumstances and if an adequate opportunity for a hearing is provided promptly after the seizure. The court concluded that the challenged statute completely failed to meet these requirements.

The court observed that the statute did not distinguish among the three classifications of vehicles it covers: abandoned, unregistered, and those that are traffic menaces. It noted that for each classification, the state's interest in removing them is different, which in turn could affect the constitutionally required timing and nature of the hearing. The importance of immediate removal and the cost of providing pre-towing notice are different for each class according to the court.

The state's interest is strongest, in the court's view where the vehicle is a traffic hazard. The court stated:

we have no doubt that such a vehicle can be towed without notice so long as the owner is given a prompt opportunity to contest the action and charges and to recover the vehicle (at page 44).

The state's interest, according to the court, is weakest when the vehicle merely appears to be abandoned but does not impose an imminent safety threat. Here, the need for immediate removal is not as pressing, and “the cost of providing adequate notice and perhaps even a hearing is not as great” (pages 44 and 45). In connection with this point, the court notes in a footnote (number 15 on page 45) that it was the practice of the Groton Police Department to mark a vehicle for a 24-hour period before towing it as abandoned. The court notes that this was not required by statute. It then states:

Some such statutory requirement might well furnish adequate notice before towing, even if more should be required before detention or sale.

The court points out that the importance of prior notice is increased because the challenged statute was not narrowly drawn. It did not define “abandoned” nor did it set out standards to guide the police in deciding whether a vehicle was abandoned. This lack of a definition could increase the liklihood of towing a car that had not been, in fact, abandoned.

In the court's view, unregistered vehicles fall between the other two classifications in terms of the strength of the state's interest, the potential for error, and the cost of notification. The court stated:

In the State's favor are the fact that this presents one method of policing the State vehicle registration laws, and the fact that a violation can be readily determined. There is not a serious potential for abuse of discretion. Furthermore, the very fact that an automobile is unregistered would make notification of the owner more difficult and potentially delay a hearing should the State choose to require one prior to seizure. On the other hand, an unregistered car presents even less of a hazard to others than one which has been abandoned, and, since a hearing must be held at some point, it might least expensively be held before towing charges are incurred. (at page 45)

In a related footnote, the court further stated:

Although not specifically raised, it would seem to follow that if an owner is successful at his hearing, he should not be liable for the towing charges. Given this result, it is in the best interests of both the owner and the state to avoid improper towing charges. (footnote 17 at page 45)

The court held that the towing, detention, and sale of motor vehicles carried out pursuant to the challenged statute deprived the affected vehicle owners of property without due process in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The statute did not provide the right to a hearing to challenge these actions either before after they occurred. Nor did any other statute require even a prior or subsequent ex parte hearing before a neutral magistrate. The court did not prescribe what procedures are constitutionally mandated. But it directed the state to weigh the interests presented by each classification of vehicle (abandoned, unregistered, and those causing traffic hazards) and establish one or more procedures that protects the due process rights of vehicle owners.

Sutton v. City of Milwaukee

In Sutton v. City of Milwaukee, 521 F. Suppl. 733 (1981), the federal district court for the eastern district of Wisconsin held that a Wisconsin statute and Milwaukee ordinance permitting vehicles to be seized, towed, and stored without a prior hearing for the owner violated the federal due process clause to the extent they permitted towing in nonemergency situations.

The statutes and ordinances that were challenged permitted vehicles to be seized, towed, and stored without a prior hearing being afforded to the owner when the vehicle was in effect standing in violation of any traffic law. The court distinguished those violations that involved emergency situations such as blocking traffic, parking in posted tow-away zones, and snow emergencies with nonemergency situations such as overnight parking on the wrong side of the street, or parking on service roads in recreational areas.

The court concluded that under the due process clause, a vehicle may be towed without notice and an opportunity to be heard only when it is standing in such a manner as to jeopardize public safety and the efficient movement of traffic.

“The guiding principle must always be whether or not the vehicle, as it stands, jeopardizes public safety by either creating an unsafe condition or significantly hindering the efficient movement of traffic. The towing of parked vehicles that don't fall within these categories without a pre-tow notice and opportunity for a hearing violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” (at 741)

The case was appealed by the city and state. The district court ruling was not contested as it related to abandoned vehicles. The issue on appeal related solely to illegally parked vehicles. The court reversed the decision of the district court and remanded the case. The appeals court unanimously held that it is not a violation of the due process clause to tow an illegally parked car without first giving the owner notice and an opportunity to be heard regarding the lawfulness of the tow (Sutton v. City of Milwaukee, 672 F2d. 644 (1982)).

GC:pp