CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) – A crack-pipe-carrying drunken driver may become the unlikely poster child for what his attorney calls a pervasive policy to illegally impound and sell “hundreds, if not thousands,” of cars on Long Island, following a federal judge’s order Tuesday that lets him pursue several constitutional claims.
Before it was impounded by Nassau County police, James B. Ferrari drove a luxury sports car by the Italian manufacturer that shares his name.
A federal judge found Tuesday that the county may have violated Ferrari’s rights by not returning his $400,000 hot rod after apprehending him as he sped more than 100 mph down a quiet suburban road in Bellport, N.Y.
Ferrari’s defense attorney Andrew Campanelli, a former special counsel to the Nassau County Police Department, told Courthouse News that he used to prosecute literally thousands of such cases, which generated more than $1.1 million for the county. Before his efforts, Nassau County made roughly $58,000 a year, he said.
Campanelli says the Ferrari case puts him in a position to reform the policy that he brought to new heights.
“It’s a decision that I’ve been long waiting for,” Campanelli said in a phone interview.
County Attorney Christine Malafi, who was dismissed as a defendant in Ferrari’s case, countered in an email to Courthouse News that Suffolk spends more money pursuing seizure cases than it makes selling the cars.
“The county of Suffolk seizes the vehicles of repeat drunk drivers, like Mr. Ferrari, for various reasons, none of which are to generate revenue,” Malafi said.
In a 27-page memorandum, U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert recounts the sordid details of Ferrari’s arrest:
“On May 26, 2009, Plaintiff James B. Ferrari drove his 2003 Ferrari westbound on South Country Road in Bellport, New York at a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour, zigzagging across the double-yellow line as he sped along. Pulled over by an arresting officer, Ferrari, whose eyes were red and whose gait was marked by a decided lack of maneuverability and performance, had a smell of alcohol about him. With slurred speech, Ferrari duly confessed to having consumed alcohol before driving and also confided that his intoxication was partly fueled by thirteen prescribed medications at the time. The arresting officer then spotted what appeared to be crack cocaine inside Ferrari’s Ferrari. ‘The crack pipe’s mine,’ Ferrari offered.”
At the police precinct, cops discovered that Ferrari had been previously convicted of driving while intoxicated and temporarily impounded Ferrari’s Ferrari pending a post-seizure hearing scheduled the next month.
When Ferrari’s attorney attended this hearing without him, presiding Justice John DiNoto adjourned and demanded that Ferrari show up next time to testify as a witness.
But Ferrari missed the next hearing as well, causing his attorney to begin arguments by saying Ferrari’s presence was unnecessary. Suffolk County prosecutors then sought a “missing witness” charge and said in opening arguments that Ferrari had the burden to show that he would face “hardship” if his car were not returned.
Ferrari also owned a Land Rover, the county argued.
At the end of the hearing, Justice DiNoto directed Suffolk County keep Ferrari’s Ferrari until a forfeiture proceeding had been resolved.
In late June 2010, Ferrari pleaded guilty to all charges DWI and criminal possession charges. In a federal complaint filed the following September, Ferrari said his rights had been violated.
Seybert upheld the claims in a memorandum Tuesday that blasts that the county’s lawyers and Justice DiNoto for basing their decisions on “flagrant misstatements of the law.”
Their conduct was also “flagrantly illogical,” she added. “If impounding his Ferrari causes Ferrari to instead drive his Land Rover, impoundment might actually undermine the County’s interest in protecting public safety,” Seybert wrote. “After all, holding other factors equal, the basic ‘laws of physics’ dictate that the much larger, much heavier Land Rover would do much greater damage in a collision than the lighter, smaller Ferrari.”
Seybert acknowledged that Ferrari was not a model civil rights victim.
“Ferrari is not the most sympathetic plaintiff, to put it mildly,” Seybert wrote. “But the Due Process clause protects everyone – even repeated drunk drivers. Here, Ferrari has adequately pled that Suffolk County violated his Due Process rights.”
Against Ferrari’s favor, she dismissed his claims against Malafi, the county attorney, without prejudice.
If Ferrari can prove that Suffolk County had an official policy of similar constitutional violations, he may be compensated under Monell liability, but Seybert wrote that he did not yet prove a “widespread practice.” She invited him, however, to refile a Monell motion, if he gains such information in discovery.
In a phone interview, Campanelli said he plans to refile claims against the individual defendants and claimed that his own experiences in Nassau show it will not be difficult to prove a “widespread practice” of due-process violations.
According to a once-confidential report he submitted to Nassau County, Campanelli’s firm prosecuted 2,547 civil forfeiture cases in 2002.
That year, Nassau County seized as many as 1,400 vehicles, the report says. Campanelli added that more than 1,000 of such cases went through his firm, and he had a 99 percent success rate prosecuting in what he now describes as “kangaroo hearings.”
Campanelli, meanwhile, is eagerly awaiting the matchup against Suffolk County.
“I guess they think that people arrested for DWI don’t have civil rights,” Campanelli said. “They’re going to learn otherwise.”
Malafi, the county attorney, said it is too soon for Ferrari’s victory march.
“The Court did not find that the County violated Mr. Ferrari’s rights,” Malafi said. “It said that he adequately plead his case sufficiently to withstand a motion to dismiss his complaint at this time.”