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Court holds City owed duty to return seized property but immune from failing to do so

Personal property owned by Frank Nall was seized from his home during a police investigation.  When his subsequent conviction was overturned, he sought the return of his property.  Some was damaged and some was simply not returned so he sued the City of Grosse Pointe Woods, alleging a violation of the City's bailment duties.  The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the City owed a duty to maintain the property but also held that it was immune from failing to do so.

While Nall framed the case as a classic violation of a bailment duties [failure to care for property over which a non-owner has assumed control and custody], the Court instead analyzed the case as one alleging negligence and applied governmental immunity to absolve the City and its police officers from responsibility for the loss of the property.  "Because 'significant public policy considerations are involved, the   [c]ourt is not controlled by the labels chosen by plaintiff.' " [Meaning, in essence, that the Court will refuse to apply the law if it decides that an individual's rights are out-weighed by the judges' interpretation of what is best for the state.]

The Court held that by framing the case as a bailment violation, the Plaintiff failed to address the City's immunity claim and that he should not be allowed the opportunity to investigate or amend his pleadings, as "Placing the burden on the plaintiff relieves the government of the expense of discvoery and trial in many cases." [Meaning that a government should not have to bother to explain its injury to an individual if the evaluating judges believe the individual's original pleading describes the case differently than they view it--even if the description is of a viable, legal cause of action.]

Finally, the judges held that Nall could not possibly prove that the City or the individual officers in charge of Nall's property were "the" cause of the destruction of his property, since it was allegedly destroyed during two water events that encroached on the Police property room.  We wonder if evidence might have persuaded reasonable jurors that valuable property and evidence--even of suspected criminals--should be maintained in a safe environment.  It certainly seems that some facts might persuade reasonable people that after the evidence room floods once, valuable property should be stored in a different location or manner.

Lastly, the Court held that even though the City purchased liability insurance to cover its negligence, it could still use its immunity defense to deny Nall's claims.  Perhaps we should just be honest and concede that if our judges decide an accused was probably guilty of a crime, his property is subject to confiscation and destruction, regardless of whether or not the accused is ultimately convicted.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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