A federal judge has declared that New York City's practice of seizing the cars of suspected unlicensed taxis until they pay fines is an illegal seizure that violates the constitutional rights of first-time violators.

U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, ruling in a lawsuit brought by five drivers and companies, said she would now consider certifying a class action and issuing an injunction. The plaintiffs also are seeking damages.

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Lawyers who filed the case said the city had been seizing about 8,000 cars annually under a policy adopted in 1990 to deal with a high rate of scofflaws among those who were given summonses for providing livery services without a license.

"There is no question that regulating vehicles that operate for hire is a legitimate exercise of police power," Caproni wrote. "But summary deprivation of property is not."