United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
R. GRAND MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS
FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [24, 26]
J. MICHELSON U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
11, 2016, the City of Detroit towed eighty-five vehicles
belonging to Carmen Auto Sales that were illegally parked on
a vacant, Detroit lot. Carmen Auto believed it had leased the
lot from a company called First United Enterprises. But as of
May 11, 2016, First United had yet to finalize the lot's
purchase from the City.
police officers knew the lot from a prior investigation. When
they saw all of the cars parked on it, they grew suspicious.
After triple-checking to make sure Detroit owned the lot, the
police called Gene's Towing to impound the cars.
Gene's Towing called B&G Towing for help.
Auto did not reclaim the cars. Instead, they filed suit
against the towing companies, the City of Detroit, a Detroit
Police Lieutenant, and a city inspector. In the meantime, the
cars were sold at public auction.
Defendants now move for summary judgment. For the reasons
that follow, the motions will be granted.
in 2015, First United Enterprise Corporation offered to buy a
vacant lot from the City of Detroit. (R. 31, PID 984.) First
United wanted to use the vacant lot to store excess inventory
for a used car dealership. (Id.) In December 2015,
First United and Detroit's Planning and Development
Department entered into a purchase agreement outlining the
sale's terms. (Id.; R. 26, PID 855.) The
purchase agreement required approval by the Detroit City
Council. (R. 31, PID 984; R. 26, PID 855). On January 19,
2016, the City Council adopted a resolution allowing the sale
to go forward. (R. 31, PID 964, 988; R. 26, PID 856-58.)
Importantly, the resolution did not finalize the sale; in
fact, the resolution made clear that any sale would not be
final until Detroit's Corporation Counsel approved the
deed. (R. 31, PID 986; R. 26, PID 857.)
February 23, 2016, the Planning and Development Department
prepared and executed a draft deed. (R. 26, PID 859; R. 31,
PID 990.) As required, the deed went to the Corporation
Counsel's office for final approval. (R. 26, PID 850; R.
31, PID 963.) But the Corporation Counsel's office
rejected the deed due to “an error in the legal
description of the property to be conveyed.” (R. 26,
PID 851.) Corporation Counsel returned it to the City
April 2016, the City Council fixed the errors and sent a
corrected deed to the Corporation Counsel's office. (R.
26, PID 851, 861-64.) On May 19, 2016, the Corporation
Counsel's office signed off on the corrected deed. (R.
26, PID 865.) It then forwarded the deed to the Detroit
Building Authority, who, on May 27, 2016, recorded it in the
Wayne County Register of Deeds. (R. 26, PID 853.) So on or
about May 27, 2016, the City of Detroit legally conveyed the
vacant lot's title to First United. (R. 26, PID 714.)
First United did not wait until May 27, 2016 to begin using
the lot. About a month earlier, First United attempted to
lease the lot to Carmen Auto. (R. 31, PID 965-66.) On April
28, 2016, Carmen Auto began storing used cars on the lot.
time, Detroit Police Lieutenant Jonathan Parnell supervised
the Detroit Police Department's Commercial Auto Theft
unit. (R. 26, PID 755.) On May 11, 2016, Parnell noticed cars
parked in the vacant lot. (Id.) He was familiar with
this vacant lot: months earlier his department conducted an
investigation into an unlawful auto scrapping business
operating on it. (R. 26, PID 756.) As part of the scrapping
investigation, Parnell learned the city owned the lot.
May 11, 2016, when Parnell saw cars parked on what he
believed was still a city-owned lot, he began another
investigation. (R. 26, PID 757.) Parnell ran a title search
on the vehicles, and none came back stolen (but none were
titled to Carmen Auto, either). (R. 26, PID 769, 771.) Then
Parnell called two city inspectors to see if the city still
owned the property. (R. 26, PID 764.) One of the city
inspectors, Jeff Bou, arrived at the lot soon after.
(Id.) Bou also knew the lot from the previous
investigation, and had paperwork indicating the city still
owned the lot. (R. 26, PID 809.) To confirm the paperwork,
made a series of calls to government offices and determined
that Detroit still owned the lot. (R. 26, PID 846.)
Bou and Parnell confirmed that the city still owned the lot,
Parnell cut a chain lock on the lot's gate (R. 31, PID
979), and called Gene's Towing to remove the vehicles (R.
26, PID 762). Gene's Towing had a towing contract with
Detroit. (R. 26, PID 772.) Due to the size of the job,
Gene's Towing contacted B & G Towing to help. (R. 26,
long after the tow trucks arrived, “various
people” claiming to be representatives for Carmen Auto
arrived and told Parnell the lot had been purchased. (R. 26,
PID 765, 846.) One of the individuals produced either a
purchase agreement or the City Council resolution approving
the purchase agreement. (Id.; R. 26, PID 831-32.) To
check on the validity of the purchase agreement, Parnell once
again phoned city inspectors and city offices to see if the
sale had gone through. (R. 26, PID 842.) Parnell's second
round of phone calls confirmed that the sale was not final
and the lot still belonged to Detroit. (Id.)
Parnell's second round of calls, another Carmen Auto
representative claimed to have a lease agreement for the lot.
(R. 26, PID 766.) Parnell asked to see it. (R. 26, PID 766.)
Parnell also urged the representative to bring title
information for the vehicles. (R. 26, PID 766-771.) About an
hour later, the representative returned, but without any
paperwork. (R. 26, PID 766-67.)
so, Parnell made a third round of calls to again make sure
the city owned the lot. (R. 26, PID 768.) This time
he called officials with Detroit and Wayne County.
(Id.) All confirmed that Detroit owned the lot.
(Id.) And none of the “various people”
who arrived at the lot ever produced documentation showing
that an entity other than Detroit owned it. (R. 26, PID 835,
847.) Nor did any of these Carmen Auto representatives ever
produce a lease agreement, title information for the
vehicles, or a permit to store used cars on the lot. (R. 26,
parking the vehicles on a city-owned lot violated city
ordinances (R. 26, PID 827), Parnell ordered the towing
operation to continue (R. 26, PID 769-71). He made clear to
Carmen Auto's representatives that the impound was not
part of a criminal investigation. (R. 26, PID 780- 81.)
Parnell also told the towing companies the cars were not
“‘on hold' for evidentiary purposes.”
(R. 24, PID 286.)
the towing companies removed all eighty-five vehicles,
Parnell explained to Carmen Auto's representatives that
they should contact the towing companies to arrange the
release of the vehicles. (R. 26, PID 780.) Parnell says he
told Carmen Auto representatives “numerous” times
how, where, and when to retrieve the towed vehicles. (R. 26,
PID 780-81.) Yet Carmen Auto never recovered the vehicles. So
they sat in the towing companies' yards for two or three
months and were eventually sold at public auction.
(Compare R. 24, PID 281 with R. 24, PID
long after the sale, Carmen Auto sued the towing companies,
the City of Detroit, Parnell, and Bou. Carmen Auto brought
claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because they say the tow
operation violated their Fourth Amendment due process rights.
(R. 1, PID ...