GATES v. CITY OF CHICAGO (September 27, 2010)

Chicago police arrested Luster Nelson in February of 2004 on a narcotics charge -- and seized the $59 in cash that he had on his person at the time. Chicago police arrested Elton Gates in January of 2003 on a non-narcotics charge -- and seized the $113 in cash that he had on his person at the time. Gates and Nelson were each given a property inventory receipt that included instructions for the return of their property. Gates ultimately pled guilty and unsuccessfully sought the return of his $113. The charges against Nelson were dismissed. He also was unsuccessful in his attempt to retrieve his $59. Gates and Nelson brought a class action suit against the City and various individuals. They alleged due process violations in that the City: seized their property and kept it without instituting a forfeiture proceeding, misrepresented when their property would be available, kept their property after the conclusion of criminal proceedings, and maintained a policy designed to delay the return of property. They sought the return of their cash, damages, and attorney's fees. They also included state law claims for conversion, replevin, and unjust enrichment, among others. Shortly after they filed suit, the City sent each a check in the full amount of his alleged property loss and offered to pay interest. The plaintiffs returned the checks. The court certified two classes of individuals (one for narcotics arrestees, one for non-narcotics arrestees) who had had property taken from them during a particular period, whose criminal cases had been resolved, and who had not been able to recover their property. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the class certification. Judge Castillo (N.D. Ill.), on remand, granted summary judgment to the City on the federal claims, refused to certify a class on the state restitution claims, and dismissed those claims as moot. The plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Judges Kanne, Rovner, and Wood affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part. The Court first turned to the sufficiency of the notice. It looked to the Supreme Court decisions in West Covina and Memphis Light for guidance. In West Covina, the Supreme Court upheld a notice that did not give many specifics about the procedure for obtaining the return of one's property but the procedures were generally available in public sources. Conversely, in Memphis Light, the Supreme Court held that a public utility must give its customers notice of its internal procedure for resolving billing disputes because the procedure was not otherwise publicly available. Here, part of the procedure for property recovery is contained in Illinois statutes and is publicly available. However, the record shows that the police also use internal procedures that are not described in generally available documents. The Court concluded that the notice provided to the plaintiffs did not satisfy Memphis Light and violated due process. The Court referred to the City's instructions as a "model of misdirection" and concluded that summary judgment for the City was premature. The narcotics arrestee class also challenges the additional notice that is sent to the home of narcotics arrestees. Their position is that the City should check the sheriff's website to determine if the arrestee is incarcerated, either before sending the notice or at least upon return of an undelivered notice. A notice, under due process, must be reasonably calculated to inform interested parties. Generally, a notice mailed to the interested party's residence is sufficient -- unless, of course, there is reason to know it would be ineffective. The Court concluded that summary judgment for the City was premature with respect to the narcotics notice. The extra notice to narcotics arrestees is not just a notice -- it is a document required to recover property. The record is not clear regarding the burden on the City to check the website, either for all notices or for those returned undelivered. The City failed to meet its burden that the mailing of the notice meets the Mullane standard.

The Court moved to the consideration of the adequacy of the procedures themselves. Again, the Court concluded that summary judgment for the City was error. First, it identified a number of factual disputes regarding the actual procedure. Second, it discussed a series of Second Circuit cases (McLendon, Butler, and Alexandre) to clarify the difference between having procedures for the return of property and having remedies if the procedures fail. A post-deprivation remedy is not a defense to a § 1983 action if the deprivation is a result of established procedures. Here, the arrestees were apparently required to obtain an arresting officer's signature on a form, and the officer could refuse arbitrarily. This does not comply with due process requirements – and cannot be corrected with a simple post-deprivation remedy. As an aside, the Court noted that the significant amount of money and number of arrestees unable to reclaim their property are indications that the policy is suspect. Finally, the Court affirmed the district court's dismissal of the restitution claims. Those claims sought nothing more than a return of the plaintiff's property. The City's tender of the full amount of the claim is sufficient to make the plaintiff whole.