Last summer, teams of federal agents swept the country in early morning raids to scoop up 40 Land Rover Defender SUVs they believe were imported illegally into the United States. One lawyer, who claims they weren’t illegal, has been fighting pro bono to get them back to their owners. And his case could come to a head next week.
Since our February exposé — which you might want to read before you continue, if you haven’t — the Defender seizure case has continued its slow march through the federal courts, with North Carolina attorney Will Hedrick representing more than two dozen owners who say their imported vehicles were of legal age to be here in the U.S. The feds disagree, but as Hedrick’s efforts have pointed out, their case has done little to prove this.
But it could all end soon. Hedrick told Jalopnik that last week a federal judge ordered the case out of court and into alternative dispute resolution — meaning mediation, a process that lets parties resolve their dispute outside of a courtroom. Mediation starts next Friday and could possibly end that day, Hedrick said.
What does that mean exactly? It means that he, U.S. Customs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Homeland Security Investigations will try and come to a compromise that will end the case. That could possibly mean the Defenders getting returned to their owners, or some other terms, he said.
“What that (settlement) is, I don’t know,” Hedrick said. He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the case moving to mediation, and he thinks that federal authorities didn’t want their case in court anymore.
“If we can’t get what we want, we’ll go back to court in no worse shape than we were,” he said.
One thing that’s potentially a good sign for the Defender owners is that in one recent ruling, the federal judge overseeing the case agreed that the government “misidentified some of the defendant vehicles” as being younger than 25 years old at the time of importation — wrongly marking them as being here illegally.
Further, the judge ruled that the case “raises the question of how vehicle modification might affect the legality of the vehicles.” It reads as a vindication for Hedrick, who has argued that his clients’ vehicles were all old enough to be imported legally.
So the case could end soon, but exactly how is yet to be seen. The other questions — like why federal authorities were so interested in seizing a few Defenders, or how the SUVs even got through customs if they were illegal in the first place — may never be answered.
Regardless of the outcome of mediation, Hedrick said he’s fully prepared to keep fighting.
“If we can’t reach agreeable terms with them, I don’t want any of (his clients) to be afraid to walk away,” he said. “If we have to go back to court, we go back to court. If for some reason we lose, I will appeal. I’m willing to take this as far as I can.”
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