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Petrassi v. Stahl

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Bend Division

January 15, 2015

JOHN PETRASSI, Individually and d/b/a HOMETOWN MOTORS, Plaintiff


ROBERT L. MILLER, Jr., District Judge.

John Petrassi had a used car business he called Hometown Motors. On January 26, 2012, Detective James Stahl of the Lake County Sheriff's Department, with fellow officers, took 79 automobile titles from Hometown Motors. Detective Stahl returned on February 1 and orchestrated the warrantless seizure of 54 vehicles from the Hometown Motors lot. Mr. Petrassi sues Officer Stahl, the Lake County sheriff, and Lake County, Indiana. The defendants have moved for summary judgment. Because a jury could find for Mr. Petrassi on his federal claims (though not on his state law claims), the court denies the summary judgment motions in part. Because the court finds genuine issues of material fact that make summary judgment on all issues inappropriate, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), this opinion omits many factual contentions.

As always on summary judgment motions, judgment is proper only if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Garofalo v. Village of Hazel Crest, 754 F.3d 428, 430 (7th Cir. 2014). At the summary judgment stage, the court doesn't decide the truth, but rather asks only if the non-movant could win at trial.


Both defendants (the official capacity claim against the sheriff is the same as the claim against the county) are right that the state law claims can't proceed because Mr. Petrassi didn't comply with the Indiana Tort Claims Act. Mr. Petrassi filed this suit 31 days after he filed his notice of tort claim. Indiana law provides that to sue a municipal entity or officer, the plaintiff must file a tort claim with the municipality, which then has 90 days to approve or reject the claim. Lake County didn't get the 90 days the statute gives it. Mr. Petrassi, whose cars were being kept from him, says he had to act before 90 days expired, but the existence of a good reason for quick action by the plaintiff doesn't eliminate the 90 day decision period the Tort Claims Act provides municipalities. Mr. Petrassi cites cases in which municipalities were held to have effectively denied a tort claim without acting officially, but none of those cases involved a implied denial after only 31 days. See Daugherty v. Dearborn County, 827 N.E.2d 34 (Ind.Ct.App. 2005) (addressing adequacy of notice of claim given 253 days after injury); City of Tipton v. Baxter, 593 N.E.2d 1280 (Ind.Ct.App. 1992) (discussing substantial compliance when plaintiff missed 180-day deadline for giving notice of claim).

Mr. Petrassi argues that he had to act quickly because the county was holding his vehicles, demanding at various times money and/or a release from liability. But nothing in Indiana law says the municipality is entitled to 90 days unless the claimant has a good reason for allowing only 30.

Both defendants are entitled to judgment on the state law claims.


Detective Stahl seeks judgment on the federal claims against him because (a) the seizure was permissible under Indiana statutes and the "closely regulated industry" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement; (b) the seizure was permissible under the "caretaking function" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement; (c) the cars weren't taken without due process of law because Mr. Petrassi could have gotten the vehicles back by presenting ownership documents to the sheriff's department and because Mr. Petrassi can't show an ownership interest in the vehicles; and (d) the qualified immunity doctrine shields Detective Stahl from liability.

The court doesn't find the support Detective Stahl perceives in Indiana law. Detective Stahl points to Indiana Code § 9-22-3-23, 24 -

Sec. 23. A record required to be maintained under this chapter is subject to inspection by a police officer during normal business hours. In addition to the inspections authorized under section 24 of this chapter, an inspection under this section may include an examination of the premises of the licensee's established place of business for the purpose of determining the accuracy of the required records.
Sec. 24. The secretary of state, a police officer, or an agent of the secretary of state or a police officer may enter upon the premises of a disposal facility, insurance company, or other business dealing in salvage vehicles during normal business hours to inspect a motor vehicle, semitrailer, recreational vehicle, major component part, records, certificate of title, and other ownership documents to determine compliance with this chapter.

- for impoundment of the certificates, and Indiana Code § 9-22-1-5 -

When an officer discovers a vehicle in the possession of a person other than the owner of the vehicle and the person cannot establish the right to possession of the vehicle, the vehicle shall be taken to and ...

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