Fuentes v. Shevin

407 U.S. 67, 92 S. Ct. 1983 (1972)



There are "extraordinary situations" that justify postponing notice and opportunity for a hearing. These situations, however, must be truly unusual. Only in a few limited situations have courts allowed outright seizure without opportunity for a prior hearing. 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.


Margarita Fuentes purchased a gas stove and service policy from the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. (Firestone) under a conditional sales contract calling for monthly payments over a period of time. A few months later, she purchased a stereophonic phonograph from the same company under the same sort of contract. These purchases cost her $500 plus $100 as financing charge. Under the contracts, Firestone retained title to the merchandise, but Mrs. Fuentes was entitled to possession unless and until she should default on her installment payments. For more than a year, Mrs. Fuentes made her installment payments. But then, with only about $ 200 remaining to be paid, a dispute developed between her and Firestone over the servicing of the stove. Firestone instituted an action in a small-claims court for repossession of both the stove and the stereo, claiming that Mrs. Fuentes had refused to make her remaining payments. Florida and Pennsylvania statutes authorized the summary seizure of goods or chattels in a person's possession under a writ of replevin, and neither provided for notice or hearing prior to seizure. Petitioners argued that the statutes deprived them of property in their possession in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. On review, the Supreme Court found that the statutes' prejudgment replevin provisions deprived petitioners of their property without due process insofar as they denied the right to prior notice and hearing before property was taken. 


Are the Florida and Pennsylvania replevin provisions applied in this case invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment?




The Florida and Pennsylvania replevin provisions are invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment since they work a deprivation of property without due process of law by denying the right to a prior opportunity to be heard before chattels are taken from the possessor. 

The right to a prior hearing has long been recognized under the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments. The Florida and Pennsylvania prejudgment replevin statutes fly in the face of this principle. To be sure, the requirements that a party seeking a writ must first post a bond, allege conclusorily that he is entitled to specific goods, and open himself to possible liability in damages if he is wrong, serve to deter wholly unfounded applications for a writ. But those requirements are hardly a substitute for a prior hearing, for they test no more than the strength of the applicant's own belief in his rights.  Since his private gain is at stake, the danger is all too great that his confidence in his cause will be misplaced. Lawyers and judges are familiar with the phenomenon of a party mistakenly but firmly convinced that his view of the facts and law will prevail, and therefore quite willing to risk the costs of litigation. Because of the understandable, self-interested fallibility of litigants, a court does not decide a dispute until it has had an opportunity to hear both sides -- and does not generally take even tentative action until it has itself examined the support for the plaintiff's position. The Florida and Pennsylvania statutes do not even require the official issuing a writ of replevin to do that much.

Moreover, the court stressed that 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, and the minimal deterrent effect of the bond requirement against unfounded applications for a writ constitutes no substitute for a pre-seizure hearing.

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