St. Louis, Mo. – October 24, 2023
Last night, ArchCity Defenders filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Calverton Park alleging the city has violated residents’ constitutional rights by illegally towing their vehicles from private property – such as people’s homes and driveways – without giving the owners a meaningful opportunity to be heard as is required by the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Calverton Park almost exclusively targeted people whose vehicles had expired or temporary tags. Not only did Calverton Park have a private company tow their vehicles, putting those individuals further behind financially, but the City imposed excessive fines upon these individuals through special tax bills, the lawsuit claims. Additionally, the suit alleges that Calverton Park’s Code Enforcement Officer, Sean Gibbons, caused these tows by submitting misleading warrant applications that omitted crucial information, namely that the cars didn’t qualify as nuisances and that Calverton Park wholly disregarded requirements that its own ordinances impose as prerequisites to any seizure.
Read the full complaint here.
“When Calverton Park unlawfully seizes their vehicles from private property, many of the City’s most vulnerable residents face tremendous obstacles in getting to work and caring for their loved ones,” said Nick Wanger, Staff Attorney at ArchCity Defenders. “By denying them dependable access to transportation, the towing makes it even more difficult, if not impossible, for the car owners to pay the Missouri state sales tax that occasioned the tow to begin with. This litigation seeks to compensate class members whom the towing scheme has harmed and to spur the city to desist from its unconstitutional practices.”
In May 2023, Christina Reise, a 38-year-old mother and plaintiff in the suit, had her car towed from her driveway because its temporary tag had expired two months prior. She was saving up for nearly $2000 in state taxes and had about $800 saved at the time.
“I don’t think it actually hit me until an hour in,” Reise said. “I was angry but at the same time, I was worried about how I was going to get to work or get my kids to school. I just had all kinds of crazy things going through my head. It was really hard.”
Calverton Park towed Reise’s car in violation of City Ordinances, which require the City to order a person to attend a hearing, give them notice about the hearing’s result, provide a period for the person to fix the issue, and only act after giving notice and waiting for the given time. Calverton Park did not fulfill any of these requirements before seizing Reise’s vehicles, and the economic hardship she suffered as a result has been debilitating.
Without transportation, Reise missed about two weeks of work and lost the same in wages. As a result of lost income, Reise and her kids went without dinner on several occasions and her landlord commenced eviction proceedings for unpaid rent. Though she was able to remain in her home after a taxing legal battle, she was terminated from her job in July due to excessive absences. Furthermore, she owed hundreds of dollars to the City in special tax bills and thousands to the finance company holding a lien which paid the towing company to secure the car’s release. Reise continues to suffer severe emotional and financial distress based on this incident.
Similarly, Sharon Jones and Alan Miller, plaintiffs in the suit, had their car towed the day after Christmas simply for not having the correct tags. Ms. Jones nor Mr. Miller ever received a letter or notice before coming outside to find Officer Sean Gibbons there with a tow truck, and Officer Gibbons threatened to arrest Ms. Jones if she didn’t allow the tow truck to take the car. Like with Reise, the City violated its own ordinances which lay out requirements for the City to follow – none of which it did.
“It put us in a big bind because we ended up having to pay my landlord, pay the towing company to get the cars out, and then pay Calverton Park a release fee. It was just money everywhere,” said Ms. Jones. “If you’re paying to stay somewhere, you should be able to live there peacefully. My kids don’t even want to come over for dinner because of the way the police act. It hurts.”
Since December 2020, Calverton Park has directed the towing of more than 81 vehicles from private property after deeming them a nuisance violation, which city officials have called a “public health issue.” However, almost all of these vehicles were seized due to lack of proper licensing or expired plates, and not any visible structural defect or safety hazard, according to the lawsuit.
Schemes like this one in Calverton Park that extract wealth from poor and working-class residents are a recurring theme in St. Louis County’s municipal legal system. “More than nine years have passed since the start of the Ferguson Uprising, and we continue to see abusive practices throughout our region that criminalize poverty and exacerbate wealth disparity,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “Even after all of the protest, media attention, litigation, and legal reform, we have to remain vigilant in challenging these unjust practices that impact people’s ability to survive and thrive.”
Angelo Vidal, Communications Fellow, ArchCity Defenders