Subsidiaries of three auto companies and a bank that makes auto loans each sued Suffolk County in federal court this week, alleging the county wrongly held seized vehicles in which the plaintiffs held an interest.
Some of the suits also allege Suffolk wrongly charged fees like those for towing and storage.
Manhattan-based lawyer Nicholas Duston, representing leasing or lending arms of Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota; and the bank, Manufacturers and Traders Trust, filed the lawsuits in Eastern District of New York in Central Islip.
They seek unspecified damages and a permanent injunction against "unconstitutional practices" by Suffolk County. The suits do not say how many vehicles may have been improperly held, but one called the county’s practices "regular and systematic."
Suffolk County’s 2020 operating budget estimated $155,000 in 2019 revenues for various vehicle seizure programs and projected $155,000 for 2020.
Duston filed a similar complaint in June on behalf of Santander Consumer, alleging the county wrongly seized a vehicle for which the bank was lienholder.
Dennis Cohen, the Suffolk County attorney, did not respond to a message left at his office Thursday. Duston said he could not comment on active litigation. Representatives for Nissan and Santander declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Representatives for the other companies did not comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
The plaintiffs allege that Suffolk police seized vehicles in 2019 or 2020 for forfeiture or to be held as evidence or for searches. In some cases the county sent the companies a notice of forfeiture; in others it sent no notice, the lawsuits say. Whatever the actions of the drivers — police said that one drove while intoxicated and another unlawfully drove away from an officer — the suits allege that the county was not entitled to hold the vehicles after its initial justifications expired.
In one Toyota case, for example, police "acting in the course of their duties" in August 2019 seized a Corolla leased to driver Kristin M. Goodwin. Authorities still keep possession "with no apparent reason to do so," according to the lawsuit.
In general, when Toyota asked for its vehicles, according to its suit, the county refused to release them without payment of fees, release of liability and an indemnity agreement. When the company did not comply, the county improperly used a New York State law to declare the vehicles as abandoned, causing the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue title under the county’s name, the lawsuit says.
"In layman’s terms, we call that ransom," said Steven L. Kessler, a lawyer specializing in forfeiture law, speaking generally about the actions described in the complaints. "It’s ransom because the bank had nothing to do with what happened underlying the seizure."
The federal government and many municipalities have laws permitting asset forfeiture, which Kessler described as a common but constitutionally dubious fundraising strategy. Until recently, he said, many financial institutions may have viewed the fees as an acceptable cost of business to retrieve vehicles they own.
"But since this has become such a regular occurrence, those numbers are going to be much higher than they used to be," he said. "My guess is that banks now have found it cost-effective to mitigate the issue, and see if they can get a federal decision on the propriety of what the localities are doing."