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Fuentes v. Shevin

    Brief Fact Summary. The owner of a stereo and gas stove purchased on installment contracts had those items repossessed by a deputy sheriff for failing to make the required monthly payments. Prior to the repossession, she was given no notice and no opportunity to protest the repossession at a hearing.
    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Even temporary, provisional remedies granted to a litigant are subject to due process constraints, such that no person’s property can be confiscated without first awarding the possessor notice and an opportunity to be heard, even where the property may later be returned.

    Facts. The Appellant, Margarita Fuentes (Appellant), was a resident of Florida. She purchased a gas stove from the Firestone tire and Rubber Co. (Firestone) under a sales contract calling for monthly payments. A few months later, she purchased a stereo from the same company under the same type of contract. Following a dispute over the servicing of the stove, Appellant failed to make several monthly payments and Firestone initiated an action in a small claims court for repossession of both the stereo and stove. Simultaneous with the filing of that action and before Appellant had even received a summons to answer its complaint, Firestone obtained a writ of replevin ordering a sheriff to seize the disputed goods at once. To obtain the writ, Florida procedure only required Firestone to fill in the blanks on the appropriate form documents and submit them to the clerk of the small claims court. There was no requirement that the applicant make a convincing showing before the seizure that the goods were wrongfully detained. Florida’s procedure only required a bare assertion by Firestone that it was entitled to a writ, in addition to posting a security bond. The clerk signed and stamped the documents and issued a writ of replevin. Later that day, a local sheriff and an agent of Firestone went to Appellant’s home and seized the stove and stereo. Appellant was provided no prior notice and allowed no opportunity whatsoever to challenge the issuance of the writ. After the property was seized, Florida law gave Appellant an opportunity for a hearing. In addition, the sheriff was required to hold the property for three days and surrender it back to Appellant if she posted a bond double the value of the property seized. A separate appellant filed a similar action in federal district court in Pennsylvania, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s prejudgment replevin process, which the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) consolidated along with this action.

    Issue. Whether state statutes, which permit the issuance of writs ordering state agents to seize a person’s possessions, without giving prior notice to the possessor of the property, nor the opportunity to challenge the seizure at a hearing prior to the repossession, violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee that no state shall deprive any person of property without due process of law.

    Held. The judgments of the district courts were vacated. Parties whose rights are to be affected are entitled to be heard, and in order that they may enjoy that right they must first be notified. The right to notice and an opportunity to be heard must be granted at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. If the right to notice and a hearing is to serve its full purpose, it must be granted at a time when the deprivation (of a person’s property) can still be prevented. No later hearing and no damage award can undo the fact that the arbitrary taking that was subject to the right of procedural due process has already occurred.

    Dissent. Justice Byron White (J. White) dissented. His dissenting opinion is omitted by the casebook.

    Discussion. Although generally holding generally that even temporary and provisional deprivations of property are void without prior notice and an opportunity to be heard, the Supreme Court did point out that in a few limited situations it might allow seizure without opportunity for a hearing, provided three requirements were met. First, the seizure must be directly necessary to secure an important government or public interest. Second, there must be a “very special” need for the prompt action. Third, the person initiating the seizure must be a government official finding the seizure necessary under a narrowly drawn stat


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