A panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way on Aug. 19 for a plaintiff to pursue her lawsuit against the City of St. Louis for its police force’s practice of issuing “wanted” bulletins on vehicles.
Mary R. Meier, the plaintiff, alleges that the practice in effect enables the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to seize vehicles without a warrant.
She claims it amounts to an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment and a deprivation of property without due process under the Fifth Amendment. She also has named as a defendant Doc’s Towing Inc., of the north St. Louis County municipality of St. John.
U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel granted summary judgment to the defendants in February, but the panel found that the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to Meier, could convince a reasonable juror to accept her claims. Judge Jane Kelly authored the opinion, with Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith and Judge Morris S. Arnold concurring.
According to the pleadings, the incident giving rise to the suit occurred on Dec. 9, 2015. Near the intersection of Interstate 55 and Virginia Avenue in south St. Louis, a Ford F-150 pickup struck another vehicle and fled the scene. When a city officer arrived, the accident victim who remained described the fleeing driver as a male and showed a cell-phone photo of the truck. The license plate traced to Mary R. Meier.
The officer then placed a “wanted” on the pickup in the Regional Justice Information Service network, which law enforcement agencies use to share information.
The following March, an officer with the Maryland Heights Police Department noticed the same pickup in a hotel parking lot. Two people were inside. The officer ran the plate, saw the “wanted” issued by the SLMPD and approached. The occupants turned out to be Meier’s son Ben and a companion, both of whom were arrested for unrelated reasons.
Maryland Heights police then arranged for the vehicle to be towed by Doc’s and notified city police, according to the opinion. City police responded that the “driver/owner” of the vehicle should come and speak to city detectives before retrieving the truck.
The day after the towing, the Meiers tried to get the truck back, but a Doc’s employee said the SLMPD had a “hold” on it. Later that month, Ben Meier contacted a city police detective who said Meier would have to answer questions about the hit-and-run accident in order to remove the hold.
Mary Meier hired attorney Jeffrey Rath, who arranged for release of the vehicle. The truck had been damaged in storage, which led a Doc’s employee to assume it was abandoned and to apply for a salvage title. Thus the Meiers finally retrieved their vehicle without it having a clear title.
Meier filed a civil-rights action. Sippel granted summary judgment to the defendants, reasoning that Meier had not produced evidence establishing that either the SLMPD or Doc’s had acted pursuant to an official policy, or that Doc’s had acted under the color of law.
The panel disagreed.
The judges observed that to establish “an unwritten or unofficial policy,” Meier must demonstrate a “continuing, widespread, persistent pattern of unconstitutional misconduct” by city employees; deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization of such conduct by the city’s policymaking officials; and that the conduct injured her.
“We conclude that Meier has adduced evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that each of these three elements is met,” the panel said.
The city argued that a “wanted” and a hold are not synonymous. City police use holds to authorize towing. City police issued only a “wanted” on Meier’s pickup, not a hold, nor did the police department arrange for the towing. Therefore, the city concluded, it cannot be held responsible for what happened to the vehicle.
“The evidence viewed in Meier’s favor does not support this argument,” the panel found. “A reasonable jury could find that Meier’s truck was towed and held pursuant to SLMPD’s unwritten but widespread and persistent policy of reporting vehicles as wanted for the purpose of detaining them without a warrant.”
The St. Louis City Counselor’s Office, which represented the city, did not comment. Meier’s attorney, Gregory G. Fenlon, did not respond to a request for comment.
The case is Mary R. Meier v. City of St. Louis, Missouri and Doc’s Towing Inc., 18-1597.