WASHINGTON -- Municipalities may be held financially liable for unlawful property seizures even if government officials are not the ones who take possession of the disputed property, the Supreme Court said yesterday.
Ruling in a case out of Cook County, Ill., the court in a unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Byron R. White said Edward Soldal and his family are entitled to a trial to determine whether Cook County owes them damages for seizing their mobile homes.
"As a result of the state action in this case, the Soldals' domicile was not only seized, it literally was carried away, giving new meaning to the term ~mobile home,'" White said. "We fail to see how being unceremoniously dispossessed of one's home in the manner alleged to have occurred here can be viewed as anything but a seizure invoking" constitutional protection, he said.
While the court said governments can be held liable, White said the decision will probably not generate a spate of lawsuits.
"We doubt that the police will often choose to further an enterprise knowing that it is contrary to the law, or proceed to seize property in the absence of objectively reasonable grounds for doing so," White said.
But others expressed concern. "It would seem to open up a can of worms," said Henry C. Strickland 3d, associate law professor at Samford University. "If an official can be deemed to be acting for the state when he's acting contrary to state policy, that's a real expansion of liability, I would think."
The dispute arose in September 1987 when Terrace Properties, owner of a mobile home park in Elk Grove, Ill., sought to evict the Soldals for alleged failure to pay their rent.
Although Illinois law requires landlords to get a court eviction judgment before tenants can be booted from their homes, Terrace Properties forcibly evicted the Soldals two weeks before a scheduled court hearing on the matter.
Margaret Hale, manager of the mobile home park, asked the county to send deputies in case Soldal resisted. As the deputies stood by, park employees disconnected the home and hauled it away. Soldal told the deputies he wanted to file a complaint for criminal trespass, but was told the matter was between him and the landlord.
A state judge on Sept. 9 ruled the eviction was unauthorized and ordered Terrace Properties to return Soldal's home to the lot. But the home was badly damaged, so Soldal filed suit in federal court seeking damages under a federal civil rights law, alleging a breach of his rights under the Constitution's Fourth and 14th amendments. Soldal said Cook County deputy sheriffs had conspired with Terrace Properties to unreasonably seize his home.
The civil rights law provides that when government officials deprive citizens of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution," they are entitled to a "proper proceeding for redress." The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures of "their persons, houses, papers, and effects" by the federal government. The 14th Amendment makes the Fourth Amendment applicable to the states.
The federal District Court dismissed the case, ruling Soldal had failed to prove his conspiracy theory, and thus, the existence of state involvement in the matter.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1991 partially reserved the District Court's decision, ruling that the presence of sheriff's deputies at the illegal eviction constituted state involvement. But the court also held that removal of the home was not a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.