A multimillion-dollar federal class-action lawsuit has been filed against Suffolk County, claiming it illegally disposes of cars seized in drunken driving arrests by turning them over to financial institutions without giving vehicle owners notice or a chance to appeal.
Attorney James Campanelli filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Friday on behalf of Andrea Maddox of Westhampton Beach, who owned a 2016 BMW. The lawyer alleges that 200 to 400 vehicle owners with loans or leases have been similarly damaged and the suit seeks $3 million.
“The law is crystal clear; they cannot give a car away to a third party without giving the notice and procedure through which to challenge the unauthorized release,” said Campanelli, of Merrick, who also represents Nassau County government in civil forfeiture cases.
Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown declined to comment on the suit.
Campanelli maintains such practices were thrown out by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the Alexandre v. Cortez case 20 years ago, involving similar cases in New York City. The appeals court mandated a process by which owners could appeal the release of their vehicles to a third party.
The attorney also said major automakers, leasing and financing companies have “explicitly advised” Suffolk County that its law “clearly violates” the Constitution.
Suffolk County forces financial institutions to sign agreements to “never return” vehicles to their owners, Campanelli said, noting that his client “has never been convicted or pled guilty to any criminal offense.”
He said the county improperly imposes on the financial institutions “exorbitant storage fees” of $4,000 to $6,000 — many times higher than the $400 charged in Nassau County. Suffolk also allows banks to recover those fees, plus the full balance of a loan and report nonpayment as a default to credit agencies. In court papers, Campanelli said Maddox’s bank not only told her she had to pay a $6,000 storage fee, but also the $39,748 she still owed on the car.