See You Later, Navigator
When Tracy McGrady Jr. landed a multimillion-dollar contract by signing with the Orlando Magic, one of the first things the Central Florida basketball prodigy did was buy his dad the car he'd always wanted -- a black, 2002 Lincoln Navigator SUV. But Tracy McGrady Sr. hasn't enjoyed a whiff of that new car smell in almost three years.
On January 14, 2002, 43-year-old McGrady Sr. drove his prized possession from his Auburndale home in Central Florida to the South Bay Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison run by the Wackenhut Corp. in the cane fields of rural Palm Beach County south of Lake Okeechobee. McGrady and his pals Nathan Broaders and Michael Booker made the trip to visit a friend, Alf Catholic, serving a life sentence for homicide. They parked the Navigator, entered the facility, and were led to a visiting park in the prison to spend some time with Catholic.
But the visit came to a halt when guards noticed Catholic and Broaders removing their shoes and switching them. A seizure and inspection of the footwear turned up a small Ziploc baggie containing an eighth-ounce of marijuana. Catholic was immediately returned to his cell; Broaders was nailed on the spot for smuggling contraband into the prison. (He is currently a fugitive.)
As McGrady and Booker were returning to the parking lot, South Bay policeman Donald Shipley approached and asked if he could search the vehicle. "Yeah, go ahead," McGrady replied. "I don't have anything illegal in there." Yet when Shipley popped open the center console armrest, he found another baggie of pot -- identical to the one Broaders had tried to bring to Catholic.
So McGrady was arrested and charged with bringing contraband into a correctional facility. Shipley promptly seized the Navigator and had it towed to the South Bay Public Safety lot in town.
It was the start of what became a seemingly interminable battle to rejoin McGrady père with the car he loved. "It was a gift from my son," the father said last week. "That car meant everything to me."
The State's Attorney's Office wouldn't prosecute McGrady, who had no prior record; proving that he "knowingly or intentionally" placed the marijuana in the Navigator would have been impossible, given that two other men were also in the vehicle. Still, the cops in the small town near Belle Glade held onto the SUV as if it were a chest of pirate gold.
Three days after his arrest, McGrady received a "notice of seizure" from South Bay police. It said he had ten days to respond to the seizure notice and ask for a hearing. When he spoke to Chief Danny Jones, director of the South Bay Public Safety Department, Jones gave McGrady a fax number. McGrady sent a handwritten note with the case number included, requesting a formal review.
In the meantime, he also called his son, one of the top players in professional basketball, a four-time NBA All-Star who now plays with the Houston Rockets. The younger McGrady contacted his agent and explained, "My dad's in trouble." The agent, Tim Hoy, phoned a prominent Miami attorney, Gerald Houlihan -- an expert on forfeiture issues.
Aubin Robinson, a Palm Beach lawyer representing South Bay, sent Houlihan a letter stating that McGrady's fax didn't count as a response: "Your client did not properly comply with statutes. Specifically, [he] did not send a certified return receipt."
Robinson added, "From a research of forfeiture law and the facts, it appears your client has a weak case."
Houlihan believed otherwise. And how.
In a suit filed against Jones in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Houlihan charged that the city's attempt to keep the Navigator was "fatally flawed." For starters, the post-seizure adversarial hearing that McGrady had requested in the fax was to be held within ten days. It wasn't. Also, according to Florida law, forfeiture proceedings must be initiated within 45 days of seizing property. South Bay waited 134 days to initiate such action, and did so by running a notice in the Palm Beach Post on August 28.
Houlihan suspects Jones initiated the forfeiture in retaliation for the suit against him and his department. He also claims that several phone calls to Jones in the month after McGrady's arrest were never returned. When he attempted to gain access to recordings of calls made to South Bay officials, he was told they'd been erased.
"Chief Jones had a motive to destroy these telephone records," says Houlihan, who notes that under the state's Sunshine Law, law enforcement records, including telephone and facsimile recordings, must be kept for a minimum of six months. "It was done to conceal his wrongdoing and his attempt to defraud. Indeed, these recordings would verify the testimony and provide incontrovertible proof that Chief Jones intentionally provided misinformation to Mr. McGrady in order to facilitate an improper vehicle forfeiture."
During his deposition of Jones in August 2002, the chief claimed he didn't know anything about any stinkin' fax. "I don't remember getting it," he testified. Asked why the notice of forfeiture didn't cite any specific statute to justify seizing the car, Jones replied, "I can't be quoting that off the top of my head." Jones has since moved on to become an assistant chief in Riviera Beach.
Due to court delays, it wasn't until October 2004 that Palm Beach County Judge David Crow finally denied South Bay's forfeiture attempt. He ruled that the Navigator was to be immediately returned to McGrady. "I called Mary Godwin, the administrative assistant at South Bay Public Safety," Houlihan explains, "and told her I'm coming to pick it up, because Mr. McGrady doesn't want to come down there. He says he'll be mistreated."
Houlihan himself drove from Miami to South Bay. Godwin was waiting for him. But she said she couldn't give him the Navigator unless he signed a statement Houlihan describes as "waiving all rights to take action against the City of South Bay and holding them harmless" for any damage to the vehicle.
Houlihan refused and asked Godwin to call Chief Michael Morris, who had taken over the position from Jones. "He said, 'If you don't sign it, you ain't gettin' the car," says Houlihan, who went home and filed a motion to hold the South Bay Public Safety Department in contempt of a court order. Three weeks ago, the cop shop finally relented and released the car, and Houlihan had it towed to a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Coral Gables.
There, it was discovered that fuel left in the car for 34 months had ruined both the gas tank and the fuel injectors, which had to be replaced to the tune of $2,300. "Gables Lincoln-Mercury also said someone had taken a hose to the inside of the car," Houlihan reports. "They had to roll the windows down and dry it out."
Morris insists that the car was kept with care by his department. "I had the car detailed, got the dust off the top, and had the carpet shampooed," Morris says.
"If they cleaned out the inside, they must have done it with a hose," Houlihan says with a laugh. "The carpet was black [with dirt and grit]."
He also laughingly dismisses Morris' claim that the department was right in seizing the car because it was used in the commission of a felony -- "introducing a controlled substance into a correctional facility." A judge has found that having a substance in a nearby parking lot is not the equivalent of introducing it into a secure facility, Houlihan says.
McGrady was finally reunited with his ride on Monday. In February, Houlihan says, the civil case goes to trial. "I'm asking for punitive damages," he says. "And damages against Chief Jones." He's also seeking to collect from South Bay his attorney's fees as well as depreciation and damage to the vehicle.
"I hope the jury gets really angry," he says. "I stopped billing Mr. McGrady a long time ago and told him I'd get them to pay all my fees. The whole thing is outrageous! This was all just bullying."
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