United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
JAMES H. FOSTER et al., Plaintiffs,
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA et al., Defendants.
JOEL H. SLOMSKY, District Judge.
This case involves four claims alleging violations of federal and state law, all stemming from incidents that occurred at a vintage car restoration shop on May 16 and 23, 2011 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Plaintiffs' claims include allegations of unreasonable seizures of vehicles and automobile parts, abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and conversion. On August 4, 2014, after the close of fact discovery, Defendants filed Motions for Summary Judgment. The Motions are now before the Court for disposition.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The parties in this lawsuit are Plaintiffs James H. Foster, West Johnson Garage, Inc. d/b/a West Johnson Classics, and International Collectibles, Inc. (collectively the "Foster Parties" or "Foster"); Defendant Alfred Jefferson ("Jefferson"); Defendants City of Philadelphia and Police Officer Sean Boyle ("City Defendants"); and Defendant Century Motors, Inc. ("Century" or "Century Motors").
In the Amended Complaint, the claims noted above are asserted against all Defendants in the following counts: (1) Count One - Unreasonable Seizure of Property in Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) Count Two - Abuse of Process; (3) Count Three - Conversion; and (4) Count Four -Civil Conspiracy.
On August 4, 2014, following a protracted period of motions practice, City Defendants, Century Motors, and Jefferson each filed separate Motions for Summary Judgment. (Doc. Nos. 98-101.) On September 3, 2014, Foster filed an Omnibus Response in Opposition. (Doc. No. 100.) Reply Briefs were also filed by Defendants. (Doc. Nos. 102, 103, 112.)
For reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the City Defendants' and Century Motors' Motions for Summary Judgment, and will deny in its entirety the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Jefferson.
III. FACTUAL STATEMENT
The following facts are pertinent to the Motions for Summary Judgment and the Responses and are viewed in the light most favorable to Foster.
This complex case emerges from what would seem to be a relatively routine problem: a landlord-tenant relationship gone awry. From 1999 to 2010, Plaintiff James Foster, a longtime resident of Northwest Philadelphia and classic automobile enthusiast, leased garage space located at 86 West Johnson Street in Philadelphia from Defendant Alfred Jefferson. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 7; Deposition of James Foster, Doc. No. 101, Ex. D at 24-26.) At this garage, Foster had a classic automobile restoration business. In addition to this business, Foster also owned and operated three local newspapers: The Germantown Chronicle, the Northwest Independent, and The Independent Voice. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 5; Foster Dep. at 21-24.)
During his twelve year leasehold for use of the garage, Foster missed various rent payments owed to Jefferson, attributing these defaults to the ebb and flow of the classic automobile market. There were "periodic instances" in which he could not pay the rent on time, but he and Jefferson "regularly made arrangements to satisfy past due balances." (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 11-12; Foster Dep. at 35-42, 47.)
Jefferson eventually took action to recover missed rent payments in 2009 and 2010. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 13-15, 18; Doc. No. 101, Exs. G, H.) His efforts culminated in two judgments against Foster. (Id.) In 2009, Jefferson received a judgment of delinquency against Foster, but did not evict him. (Deposition of Alfred Jefferson, Doc. No. 101, Ex. L at 33:6-9.) Thereafter, the parties reached an agreement over the judgment. Foster executed a mortgage on his house in favor of Jefferson to satisfy the judgment which required Foster to pay Jefferson $1, 095.71 per month. (Foster Ex. G; Foster Dep. at 96-97; Jefferson Dep. at 32:3-9.) Jefferson still holds that mortgage. (Jefferson Dep. at 33:2-3.)
On November 16, 2010, Jefferson filed a Landlord-Tenant Complaint against Foster in Philadelphia Municipal Court, again for unpaid rent. (Doc. No. 101, Ex. H.) Foster failed to answer the complaint, and the court entered a default judgment against him on December 17, 2011 in the amount of $9, 500. (Doc. No. 101, Ex. I.) Thereafter, on January 4 and January 21, 2011, in Philadelphia Municipal Court, Jefferson obtained a Writ of Possession/Eviction for the premises. (Doc. No. 87, Ex. G.) On February 9, 2011, upon Jefferson's request, Foster and Jefferson met at 86 West Johnson Street, where a Sheriff served Foster with the Writ of Eviction. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 21; Doc. No. 87-1 at ¶ 19.)
Over the next few months, Jefferson allowed Foster limited access to the property so that he could remove vehicles and return them to their owners. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 24; Foster Dep. at 52-62.) Foster estimated that at various times between March 2011 and May 2011, he was able to retrieve around twelve of the forty-seven vehicles stored at the garage. (See Foster Dep. at 169:20-23.) Some vehicles were taken to another garage Foster used and others were retrieved by their owners. (Id. at 169-70; Doc No. 87, Ex. A at ¶ 23.) Thus, between February 9 and May 2011, Foster had removed some, but not all, of the vehicles from the premises.
In the midst of the eviction process, Foster published an article entitled "Trouble in Tascoland" in the April 29-May 11, 2011 edition of his newspaper The Germantown Chronicle. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 25-26; Doc. No. 101, Ex. K.) In the article, Foster criticized Philadelphia Councilwoman Marian Tasco, alleging that she misappropriated Deferred Retirement Option Plan ("DROP") retirement funds. (Id.) Jefferson admitted in deposition testimony that he and Councilwoman Tasco maintain a personal relationship. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 27-29; Jefferson Dep. at 10-11.) Jefferson worked on and donated money to Tasco's campaign. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 28-29; Jefferson Dep. at 10-11; Doc. No. 101, Ex. M.) Additionally, Jefferson and Tasco attended social events together and Jefferson worked on Tasco's house. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 27-28; Jefferson Dep. at 10-13.) Within days of publishing this article, Foster was denied by Jefferson access to the Johnson Street garage, making it impossible for him to continue his efforts to remove vehicles. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 30; Foster Dep. at 60-61.)
In late April or early May 2011, Jefferson contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT") to obtain information about the procedure for removal of the vehicles from his property. (Doc. No. 87-1 at ¶ 28; Jefferson Dep. at 64:14-17.) PennDOT referred him to the Philadelphia Police Department's Neighborhood Services Unit ("NSU"). (Doc. No. 87-1 at ¶ 29; Jefferson Dep. at 64:14-17; 96:2-9.) Jefferson made a claim with the NSU for removal of the vehicles from his garage. (Doc. No. 87-1 at ¶ 31; Deposition of Officer Sean Boyle, Doc. No. 101, Ex. N at 52:5-10.) NSU is responsible for the removal of abandoned vehicles under the Pennsylvania Abandoned Vehicle Code. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7301 et seq. (hereinafter "the Code").
The definitional section of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, which includes the provisions of the Abandoned Vehicle Code, defines an "abandoned vehicle" as follows:
A vehicle (other than a pedalcycle) shall be presumed to be abandoned under any of the following circumstances, but the presumption is rebuttable by a preponderance of the evidence:
(i) The vehicle is physically inoperable and is left unattended on a highway or other public property for more than 48 hours.
(ii) The vehicle has remained illegally on a highway or other public property for a period of more than 48 hours.
(iii) The vehicle is left unattended on or along a highway or other public property for more than 48 hours and does not bear all of the following:
(A) A valid registration plate.
(B) A current certificate of inspection.
(C) An ascertainable vehicle identification number.
(iv) The vehicle has remained on private property without the consent of the owner or person in control of the property for more than 24 hours.
75 Pa.C.S.A. § 102.
The Abandoned Vehicle Code, in addition to describing removal protocol for vehicles left on roadways, also sets forth specific protocol for handling reports by private property owners of abandoned vehicles. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7311.1, ("Reports by Private Property Owners of Abandoned Vehicles"), provides as follows:
A person on whose private property is located a vehicle which has remained on the property without the consent of the property owner or his agent for more than 24 hours may authorize the removal or processing of the vehicle. Prior to the removal or processing of the vehicle, that person shall file a report, on a multipart form prescribed by the department, with the local police department declaring that an unauthorized vehicle has been left unattended and on private property for at least 24 hours. One part of such report shall be retained by that person, and the other part shall be filed with the police department. The police department shall, within five business days, process the vehicle as abandoned under this chapter and attach a copy of the report to the abandoned vehicle information report.
75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7311.1.
Once a removal report is filed with NSU, a police officer from NSU will investigate to determine if removal is proper under the statute. (Deposition of Mary Bibbo, Doc. No. 101, Ex. S at 43:9-19.) After the investigation, if NSU determines that removal is warranted, NSU will designate a local business to remove and tow the vehicle at the pertinent address. (See Doc. No. 84-2 at ¶¶ 27, 32.) The local business is known as a "salvor" which would enter into a towing contract with the City of Philadelphia. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 102; (Doc. No. 86, Exs. R, T).
In this regard, the Code provides:
Upon receipt of the written abandoned vehicle information report from any authorized person, ... a salvor shall take possession of and remove to the storage facility of the salvor any abandoned vehicle located within 30 miles of the place of business of the salvor....
75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7303.1(b).
The salvor will hold the vehicle for a length of time, and then dispose of it according to state law. (Doc. No. 86 at ¶ 22.) NSU prepares the state mandated paperwork for every abandoned vehicle towed by the salvor and notifies the last registered owner or lienholder of the disposition of the vehicle. See 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7305(a); (Doc. No. 86, Ex. R).
The City does not pay the salvor directly, but rather a salvor receives compensation from the owner of the vehicle for towing and storage charges. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 7306. If the salvor obtains a "certificate of salvage" or "salvage title" from the State, the salvor may keep the car and use or sell its parts. See generally 75 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 7307-09; (Doc. No. 86, Ex. R); (Deposition of Richard Cray, Doc. No. 101, Ex. 17 at 42-45).
Mary Bibbo, a civilian administrator at NSU, is in charge of facilitating the removal of vehicles that are deemed abandoned. She selects the towing company for each assignment based on the one with the lowest number of year-to-date towing assignments. (Doc. No. 87-1 at ¶ 32; Bibbo Dep. at 52:3-4, 53:6-16, 60:3-61:13, 116:21-117.2.) Before NSU commences a towing assignment of an abandoned vehicle, the owner of the property and the Philadelphia Police Officer assigned to verify the propriety of the towing operation, in accordance with State and Local law, must fill out a PennDOT form MV-952PP.
Police Officer Sean Boyle, assigned to NSU, was designated to visit and inspect the 86 West Johnson Street garage and to investigate Jefferson's report. He did so sometime before May 16, 2011. (Boyle Dep. at 26-27, 31-32.) Boyle verified through the Police Department that Alfred Jefferson was in fact the owner of the property. (Doc. No. 84-2 at ¶ 11; Boyle Dep. at 33:19-25; Doc. No. 84, Ex. F.) During the initial inspection, Jefferson gave Boyle the eviction notice. (Doc. No. 84-2 at ¶ 13; Jefferson Dep. at 65:22-25; Boyle Dep. at 32:14-19, 35:2-25.)
On May 16, 2011, Foster received a phone call from his wife, informing him that she witnessed a series of tow trucks lined up near the Johnson Street property. (Foster Dep. at 155-was 56.) Foster called Jefferson, who handed the phone over to Officer Boyle. (Id. at 156.) During this call, Foster explained to Boyle that he ran a business out of the garage and that the cars located there belonged to other people. (Id. at 138:9-24, 139.) Boyle responded that nothing could be done to stop the vehicles from being towed. (Id. at 155-56; Boyle Dep. at 62.)
Despite Foster's protests, eighteen vehicles were towed from the garage on May 16, 2011, all belonging to third parties. (Doc. No. 101, Ex. O.) In addition to the vehicles, Boyle removed loose automobile parts from the garage. (Foster Dep. at 152; Cray Dep. at 101.) Boyle did not inventory these parts in writing nor did he try to match them with seized vehicles. He did not direct any person at NSU to inventory the parts or match them with the cars. (Doc. No. 84-2 at ¶ 23.)
Vehicles and parts were towed to Century Motors, Inc., a Southwest Philadelphia-based automotive repair and car part business which was a designated salvor that had a contract with the City of Philadelphia. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 55; Foster Dep. at 142-54.) Richard Cray, a Century Motors employee and a former Highway Sergeant for the Philadelphia Police, coordinated the May 16, 2011 towings on Century's behalf. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 67; see Cray Dep. at 93-117.) When third-party car owners went to Century to pick up their vehicles, they observed that their cars were damaged and parts were missing. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 79-80.) One owner, John Bank, claimed that Cray was "aggressive and profane with Bank" and "intimidated Bank into signing a waiver for any damage to the vehicle." (Id. at ¶ 80; Deposition of John Bank, Doc. No. 101, Ex. CC at 28-29.)
After the towing, Foster called the Internal Affairs Bureau ("IAB") of the Philadelphia Police Department and spoke with Lieutenant Kevin Long, who was an acquaintance of Foster. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 52; Foster Dep. at 142, 193-95.) Long told Foster that he was shocked about the bizarre operation of the towing of the vehicles by NSU, and that Internal Affairs would investigate the incident. (Doc No. 100 at ¶ 53; Foster Dep. at 142.) That same day, Foster went to the NSU building, where he spoke with Mary Bibbo, the civilian administrator, and Captain Anthony Desher, the person in charge of the unit involved in towing abandoned vehicles. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 54; Foster Dep. at 142-54.) Foster explained what happened, prompting Desher to respond, "Century's gotta get something out of this, end of story." (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 56; Foster Dep. at 154.)
On or about May 17, 2011, Lieutenant Long and Foster had another conversation, where Long told Foster: "Get yourself a good lawyer, the decision to take your cars came from the highest level of the department." (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 57; Foster Dep. at 154.)
In addition to his conversations with Foster, Long communicated within the Police Department about the towing incidents at 86 West Johnson Street. On May 26, 2011, Long sent an email to Captain Desher, which read in relevant part:
Thank you for taking my call today in reference to the assignment at 86 West Johnson Street. This is a rather unique situation and I hope that your contacting the evicted tenant, Jim Foster, will help minimize the need for a formal investigation at IAB.
(Doc. No. 101, Ex. V.)
On May 23, 2011, Boyle and NSU conducted a second round of towing from the 86 West Johnson garage, taking another seventeen vehicles. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 38, 39; Foster Dep. at 82; Doc. No. 101, Ex. R.) This time, each vehicle belonged to Foster. (Id.) They were towed to Steffa Metals, Co., a car parts business located in Northeast Philadelphia. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 38, 39; Doc. No. 101, Ex. Q.) Overall, "[t]he collaboration between Boyle and Jefferson consisted of at least three in-person meetings, the completion of the PennDOT MV952-PP forms, several telephone conversations and two full-day towing sessions, " resulting in a total of thirty-five vehicles being towed. (Doc. No. 100 at 18; see Boyle Dep. at 26-33, 37-40, 72-73.)
Regarding the May 16 and May 23 towings, Boyle and Bibbo acknowledged that the vehicles towed from the garage were related to the landlord-tenant dispute between Foster and Jefferson. (Boyle Dep. at 65; Bibbo Dep. at 49.) Boyle testified that he knew that the garage housed Foster's business, and acknowledged that the premises had a business license on the wall, an engine hoist, and a jack. (Boyle Dep. at 38-39.) He also observed automobile parts throughout the garage. (Id.) Further, Boyle testified that Foster informed both Boyle and Jefferson on May 16, 2011 that the vehicles being towed did not belong to Foster and that he needed to return them to their owners. (Boyle Dep. at 41-43; Jefferson Dep. at 45-46.)
In his deposition, Captain Desher, from his eight years of experience in the towing unit, could single out only one other instance where the Police towed a high volume of vehicles from a garage. (Deposition of Captain Anthony Desher, Doc. No. 101, Ex. W at 22, 29.) He was unsure whether the garage in the previous incident was an automotive business. (Id.) Similarly, Boyle, who has been involved in the towing of thousands of cars in his position at NSU, could not name another instance in which vehicles were towed from a closed garage or automotive business. (See Boyle Dep. at 83, 87.) Bibbo likewise testified that in her fourteen years at NSU, she has never heard of another instance in which such a high number of vehicles were towed from a private garage. (See Bibbo Dep. at 49.) In fact, these individuals recognized that this was a unique situation and instituted special procedures for the May 16 towing. (Doc. No. 86 at ¶ 58.) Bibbo worked to ensure that the owners of the towed vehicles did not receive citations or incur towing or storage fees from Century Motors. (Id.; Bibbo Dep. at 48-51; Boyle Dep. at 71.)
Based on his conversations with Lieutenant Long, Foster became suspicious of Century Motors and began to research their business. (See Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 62-63.) Subsequent investigation revealed the following about Century Motors and the Philadelphia Police Department.
First, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") was investigating Century Motors for improper activities. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 63; Foster Dep. at 259; Cray Dep. at 74-77.) Boyle and Bibbo acknowledged in their depositions that they were aware of the investigation and that it was still ongoing. (Boyle Dep. at 84-86; Bibbo Dep. at 152-53.) In or around January 2011, approximately fifteen FBI agents raided Century Motors' office and seized the company's computers. (Cray Dep. at 74-78.)
Second, former Philadelphia Police Highway Patrol Officer Richard Cray worked as a general manager of Century Motors, and was present during the May 16 and May 23 towings. (Cray Dep. at 23-25; Doc. No. 86, Ex. R.) Cray began working at Century in 1995, and worked concurrently at Century and the Police Department until 2004, when he retired from the Police Department and then worked exclusively at Century. (Cray Dep. at 23-25.) At Century, Cray was involved in coordinating the towing of abandoned vehicles under the Code. (Id. at 25.) Cray left Century Motors in 2012. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 72; Cray Dep. at 53-55.)
During his employment at Century, Cray was familiar to many people in the Police Department. Bibbo testified: "I mean, everybody at our unit knew Richie Cray because he was a highway sergeant." (Bibbo Dep. at 154-55.) Cray even wrote Bibbo a personal, handwritten note requesting information regarding paperwork reflecting the values of the towed vehicles. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 77; Bibbo Dep. at 196:10-16; Doc. No. Ex. AA.) The note read: "can we redo 952's w/value -Richie." (Id.) When asked about this note, Bibbo testified that she interpreted the note to mean that Cray requested guidance from Bibbo regarding "cars that didn't have value that he wanted value put on them." (Bibbo Dep. at 196.) In effect, Cray was asking Bibbo to redo forms to show a value on certain cars.
As a result of the May 16 and May 23 towings, Foster was unable to operate his business. He sustained a loss of income and business opportunities. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 85-89; Foster Dep. at 109, 188-89.) Moreover, Steffa Metals has not returned Foster's personal vehicles towed on May 23, 2011. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 88; Doc. No. 101, Ex. R.) Foster estimates the value of his vehicles to be $66, 630. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶¶ 85-89; Foster Dep. at 109, 188-89.) Foster also testified that the towings were a public spectacle and caused him pain, suffering, humiliation, emotional distress, and loss of reputation in his community. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 89; Foster Dep. at 109, 188-89.)
IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Granting summary judgment is an extraordinary remedy. Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In reaching this decision, the court must determine whether "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits show there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Favata v. Seidel , 511 F.Appx. 155, 158 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Azur v. Chase Bank, USA, Nat'l Ass'n , 601 F.3d 212, 216 (3d Cir. 2010) (quotation omitted)). A disputed issue is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks , 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). For a fact to be considered "material, " it "must have the potential to alter the outcome of the case." Favata , 511 F.Appx. at 158. Once the proponent of summary judgment "points to evidence demonstrating no issue of material fact exists, the non-moving party has the duty to set forth specific facts showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists and that a reasonable factfinder could rule in its favor." Id . (quoting Azur , 601 F.3d at 216 (internal quotation marks omitted)).
In deciding a motion for summary judgment, "[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id . (quoting Chambers ex rel. Chambers v. Sch. Dist. of Phila. Bd. of Educ. , 587 F.3d 176, 181 (3d Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted)). The Court's task is not to resolve disputed issues of fact, but to determine whether there exist any factual issues to be tried. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 247-49. Whenever a factual issue arises which cannot be resolved without a credibility determination, at this stage the Court must credit the non-moving party's evidence over that presented by the moving party. Id. at 255. If there is no factual issue, and if only one reasonable conclusion could arise from the record regarding the potential outcome under the governing law, summary judgment must be awarded in favor of the moving party. Id. at 250.
A. Section 1983 Claims Against City Defendants, Jefferson, and Century Motors
In opposing the Motions for Summary Judgment, Foster alleges that the evidence shows at this stage of the proceedings that City Defendants, Jefferson, and Century Motors acted under color of state law when they conspired to remove and seize vehicles from the garage located at 86 West Johnson Street. He also claims that the removal constituted an illegal seizure under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
To establish a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff (1) must establish a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) show that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Boyer v. Mohring, 994 F.Supp.2d 649, 657 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (citing West v. Atkins , 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988)).
Accordingly, the Court will discuss the Motions for Summary Judgment on the § 1983 claim against each defendant in the following order: Officer Boyle, City of Philadelphia, Jefferson, and Century Motors.
1. Section 1983 Claim Against Police Officer Sean Boyle
Officer Boyle contends that his authorization to tow Foster's vehicles did not amount to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Doc. No. 84-1 at 6-7.) Alternatively, Boyle argues that even if his actions led to an unreasonable seizure, he should be afforded the protection of qualified immunity. (Id. at 7.)
For reasons set forth below, summary judgment as to Boyle will be denied on Count One because Foster has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to (1) whether the towing or seizure of the vehicles was "reasonable" under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and (2) whether qualified immunity shields Boyle from suit for his conduct in this case.
i. Foster Raises a Genuine Issue of Material Fact as to Whether Officer Boyle's Seizures Were "Reasonable" Under the Fourth Amendment
"The impoundment of an automobile is a Fourth Amendment seizure." Draper v. Upper Darby Twp. Police Dept., No. 10-1080, 2012 WL 93178, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2012). "As a general rule, a law enforcement officer may only seize property pursuant to a warrant based on probable cause. Police may, however, exercise discretion to impound a vehicle so long as that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria." Id . (internal quotation marks omitted). However, a decision to impound a vehicle contrary to standardized procedure is not a per se violation of the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. Smith , 522 F.3d 305, 312 (3d Cir. 2008).
The crux of whether the Fourth Amendment was violated, however, depends on the objective reasonableness of the seizure. See Smith , 522 F.3d at 312. The reasonableness inquiry requires consideration of the circumstances of each individual situation. See Cooper v. California , 386 U.S. 58, 59 (1967).
Boyle argues that his conduct was reasonable because he was merely following the protocol for the handling of vehicles left on private property without the consent of the owner for over twenty-four hours pursuant to Pennsylvania's Abandoned Vehicle Code. 75 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 7303.1, 7311.1; (Doc. No. 84-1 at 9). In accordance with the Code, Boyle claims that because he verified that (1) Jefferson was the owner of the property, (2) Foster was properly evicted from this property, and (3) the towed vehicles were on the premises for over twenty-four hours, he acted reasonably in removing the vehicles. (Id.)
This analysis is not entirely accurate given that this case involves a matter of federal law. "The question... upon review of a state-approved... seizure is not whether [the seizure] was authorized by state law but whether [the seizure] was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Miranda v. City of Cornelius , 429 F.3d 858, 864-65 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Sibron v. New York , 392 U.S. 40, 61 (1968)).
Here, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Foster, he raises a genuine issue of material fact regarding what a "reasonable" response to Jefferson's request that the vehicles be removed from the garage should have been under the Code and, by extension, under the Fourth Amendment. (Doc. No. 100 at 20.)
Initially, Foster claims that the evidence shows that Boyle's seizure was illegal under the Code for two reasons: (1) Boyle was not acting reasonably in believing the vehicles were "abandoned, " and (2) the Abandoned Vehicle Code does not authorize the seizure of loose car parts. (Doc. No. 100 at ¶ 51.) The Court will address these assertions in turn.
First, as noted previously, the Vehicle Code specifically defines the term "abandoned vehicle:"
A vehicle (other than a pedalcycle) shall be presumed to be abandoned under any of the following circumstances, but the presumption is ...