407 U.S. 67 (1972)

Margarita Fuentes purchased a gas stove and stereo system on a monthly payment plan from Firestone. She made all of her payments on time for more than a year, but ended up getting into an argument with the company over a service contract. Firestone sued her in small claims court, and simultaneously filed for a writ of replevin to repossess her merchandise, which the local sheriff carried out on the same day without notice to Fuentes.

Fuentes sued the state of Florida (represented by Attorney General Shevin) in district court, claiming that her due process rights under Amendment XIV had been violated. After an initial judgement against Fuentes, she appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which heard her case on November 9, 1971, and issued its ruling on June 12, 1972. The Supreme Court extended its ruling to a similar case in Pennsylvania as well, although the judgment focused on Fuentes.

Justice Potter Stewart delivered the opinion, joined by William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall.

The primary question in the present cases is whether these state statutes are constitutionally defective in failing to provide for hearings "at a meaningful time." The Florida replevin process guarantees an opportunity for a hearing after the seizure of goods, and the Pennsylvania process allows a post-seizure hearing if the aggrieved party shoulders the burden of initiating one. But neither the Florida nor the Pennsylvania statute provides for notice or an opportunity to be heard before the seizure. The issue is whether procedural due process in the context of these cases requires an opportunity for a hearing before the State authorizes its agents to seize property in the possession of a person upon the application of another.

The constitutional right to be heard is a basic aspect of the duty of government to follow a fair process of decisionmaking when it acts to deprive a person of his possessions. The purpose of this requirement is not only to ensure abstract fair play to the individual. Its purpose, more particularly, is to protect his use and possession of property from arbitrary encroachment - to minimize substantively unfair or mistaken deprivations of property, a danger that is especially great when the State seizes goods simply upon the application of and for the benefit of a private party. So viewed, the prohibition against the deprivation of property without due process of law reflects the high value, embedded in our constitutional and political history, that we place on a person's right to enjoy what is his, free of governmental interference. (at 80, 81)

The opinion went on to outline three necessary circumstances for property to be seized without a prior hearing, based upon previous cases.
  • "First, in each case, the seizure has been directly necessary to secure an important governmental or general public interest.
  • "Second, there has been a special need for very prompt action.
  • "Third, the State has kept strict control over its monopoly of legitimate force: the person initiating the seizure has been a government official responsible for determining, under the standards of a narrowly drawn statute, that it was necessary and justified in the particular instance." (at 91, bullets added by the noder)
The dissent was written by Byron White and joined by Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun. Key excerpt:
The interests of the buyer and seller are obviously antagonistic during this interim period: the buyer wants the use of the property pending final judgment; the seller's interest is to prevent further use and deterioration of his security. By the Florida and Pennsylvania laws the property is to all intents and purposes placed in custody and immobilized during this time. The buyer loses use of the property temporarily but is protected against loss; the seller is protected against deterioration of the property but must undertake by bond to make the buyer whole in the event the latter prevails.

In considering whether this resolution of conflicting interests is unconstitutional, much depends on one's perceptions of the practical considerations involved. The Court holds it constitutionally essential to afford opportunity for a probable cause hearing prior to repossession. Its stated purpose is "to prevent unfair and mistaken deprivations of property." But in these typical situations, the buyer-debtor has either defaulted or he has not. If there is a default, it would seem not only "fair," but essential, that the creditor be allowed to repossess; and I cannot say that the likelihood of a mistaken claim of default is sufficiently real or recurring to justify a broad constitutional requirement that a creditor do more than the typical state law requires and permits him to do. Sellers are normally in the business of selling and collecting the price for their merchandise. I could be quite wrong, but it would not seem in the creditor's interest for a default occasioning repossession to occur; as a practical matter it would much better serve his interests if the transaction goes forward and is completed as planned. (at 100)

Thankfully for those of us on the buying end of things, Stewart's opinion became law, not White's.

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