CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled that a state trooper and prosecutor do not have to return seized property because the petitioner failed to secure an order directing the return of the property.
Pristine Pre-Owned Auto appealed the Mineral Circuit Court’s order denying its complaint seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the return of items seized by West Virginia State Police Trooper M.L. Travelpiece in his execution of a search warrant at Pristine’s business premises, according to a March 3 opinion.
Justice Robin Jean Davis delivered the majority opinion.
Although Pristine challenged the underlying search warrant as being an improper general warrant and argued that the lower court erred by failing to apply the exclusionary rule to preclude the use of the seized evidence in any future criminal proceeding against Pristine’s corporate officers, the Supreme Court stated that it did not reach those issues.
“Instead, we resolve this case on the issue of whether an extraordinary writ of mandamus is a proper remedy under circumstances such as those herein presented,” the opinion states. “Because we find that mandamus is not a proper remedy in this instance, we affirm the order of the circuit court denying Pristine’s complaint seeking a writ of mandamus.”
On Oct. 23, 2014, Travelpiece sought a search warrant from Mineral County Magistrate Sue Roby. In his affidavit accompanying the complaint for the search warrant, he contended that on Sept. 8, 2014, he was contacted by Shelly Jackson, a customer of Pristine, who sought to file a complaint of false pretences against the company.
Jackson claimed she purchased an automobile from Pristine and that the company held a lien on the vehicle pending full payment of the purchase price and she informed Travelpiece that Pristine had asked her to bring the car to the dealership to resolve a paperwork discrepancy and instead, she contacted the DMV and then Travelpiece.
The following day, Jackson reported the vehicle stolen and again contacted Travelpiece to apprise him of the missing vehicle and Travelpiece located the vehicle on Pristine’s lot.
Pristine claimed that it repossessed the vehicle due to Jackson’s failure to make payments on a secondary lien on the vehicle, however, according to Travelpiece, Jackson had provided documentation to show that she had made agreed upon payments.
Travelpiece then learned from the DMV that the sale of the vehicle to Jackson was being investigated by the agency because the certificate of title to the vehicle on file with the DMV did not properly identify it as a salvage vehicle and the DMV related that a prior owner of the vehicle, who had also purchased the vehicle from Pristine, had apparently been involved in an accident and, as a result, the vehicle became a salvage vehicle.
The prior owner’s insurance company had tendered payment to Pristine equal to the remainder due on a lien Pristine held on the vehicle and Pristine was then to surrender the vehicle’s title to the insurer and purportedly failed to do so.
Instead, Pristine repaired the vehicle and sold it to Jackson. The DMV suggested to Travelpiece that Pristine had engaged in the practice of adding the cost of vehicle maintenance onto existing liens and then repossessing vehicles based upon customers’ defaults on the amounts Pristine had added to those existing liens.
Travelpiece opined to the magistrate court that this practice put into question the legality of Pristine’s past automobile repossessions from individuals who had allegedly defaulted on their automobile loan payments and Travelpiece advised the magistrate court that he had also received several complaints from customers of Pristine who claimed they were either sold a reconstructed vehicle without proper notice or that Pristine had refused to transfer title to a vehicle upon completion of all payments due.
Roby issued the requested search warrant and when Travelpiece executed the warrant, corporate officers of Pristine refused to cooperate or assist in the location of the documents and equipment subject to the warrant.
As a result, law enforcement then seized a considerable volume of paperwork, records, computer equipment and other materials during the search of the property.
On Nov. 12, 2014, Pristine filed a complaint seeking a writ of mandamus and an injunction in Mineral Circuit Court and the circuit court denied Pristine’s complaint on Dec. 12, 2014.
“However, instead of addressing the issues raised in the context of mandamus, the circuit court found that Rule 41(e) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure provided the proper analysis,” the opinion states. “Addressing the sufficiency of the search warrant on the merits, the circuit court upheld the search and seizure. Additionally, however, the circuit court ordered Trooper Travelpiece and Prosecutor Courrier to ‘coordinate the return [to Pristine’s counsel] of any items in which the State does not have a continuing interest.’” This appeal followed.
Pristine failed to secure an order directing the return of its seized property and, in the absence of such an order, there is no duty obligating Travelpiece or Prosecuting Attorney James W. Courrier to return said property, according to the opinion.
“In the absence of such a duty, mandamus simply is not proper,” the opinion states. “Thus, we affirm the circuit court’s denial of Pristine’s complaint seeking a writ of mandamus, although the basis for our decision differs from the grounds relied upon by the circuit court.”
Pristine Pre-Owned Auto was represented by James E. Smith II.
The respondents were represented by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Assistant Attorneys General Julie Marie Blake, Virginia Grottendieck Lanam and John A. Hoyer; and Mineral County Prosecuting Attorney F. Cody Pancake III.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 15-0008