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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > November 2012 > Hensley v. Gassman — Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee), Sept. 11,

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Hensley v. Gassman — Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee), Sept. 11, 2012

Question: Can officers’ participation in the repossession of a car lead to a Fourth Amendment violation?

Quick Answer: Yes, if there is no apparent legal basis for a repossession, officers violate the Fourth Amendment by taking an active role in a private repossession.

Facts: Ronald Gassman went to Sheila Hensley’s house to repossess a vehicle. At Gassman’s request, two police officers were dispatched to provide a police presence during the repossession. Gassman told the officers that he had a private repossession order and showed them a file, but the officers did not read any of the documents in it. Officers knew Gassman did not have a court order requiring repossession. While Gassman tried to tow the vehicle, Hensley got into the vehicle, started it, and locked the doors. The officers told Gassman to pull the vehicle out of the driveway, and after he did, an officer broke one of the windows, opened the door, and pulled Hensley out. Gassman towed the vehicle, which was returned to Hensley the next day after it was discovered that her payments were current.

Why this case is important: The court held that the seizure of Hensley’s vehicle was unreasonable. The officers knew that the repossession was a private civil matter, and they lacked any evidence that supported Gassman’s claim that he was authorized to repossess the vehicle.

Keep in mind: If your department allows officers to be present to keep the peace at repossession, you should remember that your job is to keep the peace; it is not to act as enforcers for the person repossessing the vehicle. If you’re seen as “picking sides” in a purely civil dispute, you could be subjecting yourself and your department to liability. Although this case turns on Michigan repossession laws, the basic principle is applicable to many civil disputes: absent a court order demanding a certain outcome, an officer fulfilling a peacekeeping role should not pick sides.  

In this case, once the officer ordered the vehicle out into the street, broke into it, and forcibly extracted Hensley, he was essentially no longer performing a peacekeeping function.  Instead, he was using police authority to assist in the repossession.  
Visit the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.