The police can’t help a repossession agent seize your car

An alarming trend that I’ve noticed lately is police officers getting involved in a self-help repossession. Many times the consumer calls the police after the situation escalates and becomes violent. Occasionally, the repo agent gets the police to accompany him to the scene of the repossession. In my experience, police involvement during a repossession ranges from keeping the peace to actively helping the repo agent take the vehicle. But at what point does this police involvement become illegal?

Before I answer that, here’s a little background: under the U.S. Constitution, the state can’t take your property without notice and an opportunity to be heard. This is called due process. But in states like Minnesota that allow self-help repossession, the creditor can repossess your vehicle without any court involvement whatsoever. Notice is not required and there’s no opportunity for you to be heard before your car is taken. So why isn’t this a violation of the Consitution? Because the Constitution only gives you due process rights when your property is seized by a government, or state, actor. Private repossession companies aren’t state actors. But police officers are. So if a police officer assists in the repossession of your car, it’s potentially a violation of your constitutional rights because a state actor is depriving you of your property without due process.

Of course, it’s not always easy to determine at what point the police go from merely keeping the peace to actively assisting in the repossession. Most of the courts that have looked at this issue have noted that the police may act to diffuse a volatile situation, but may not aid the repossession agents in such a way that the repossession would not have occurred but for their assistance. If the police threaten you with arrest or command you to turn over the vehicle, they’ve probably crossed the line from keeping the peace into active involvement. This would violate your rights to due process and you may be entitled to bring a lawsuit against the police and repossession company for wrongfully repossessing your vehicle.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bruce_r/3854836367/