CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT rules against car forfeiture

BY JULIA CHEEVER

The California Supreme Court ruled by a narrow 4-3 vote in San Francisco today that cities can’t pass local laws providing for the forfeiture of cars used for drug dealing and prostitution.

The court majority said such laws are pre-empted by state law.

The ruling overturns a Stockton law and in effect also tosses out similar laws in 28 other cities including Oakland, Richmond and Los Angeles, according to Mark Clausen, a lawyer for a citizen who challenged the Stockton law.

Stockton City Attorney Ren Nosky said, “We’re very disappointed. It was an effective crime deterrent for us.”

But American Civil Liberties Union attorney Alan Schlosser said, “We think it’s a very good decision. These laws impose what is in practical terms a severe penalty by seizing a person’s car for up to a year without giving fundamental due process.”

The 2001 Stockton measure allowed authorities to seize a vehicle used to solicit prostitution or buy drugs, including even in misdemeanor transactions such as buying one ounce of marijuana. Police could keep the car for up to a year before filing a court petition for forfeiture.

The high court majority said such measures conflict with state statutes that restrict vehicle forfeiture to the most serious drug cases and allow removal but not forfeiture of cars in some prostitution cases.

Justice Joyce Kennard wrote that prostitution and drug dealing “are matters of statewide concern that our Legislature has comprehensively addressed through various provisions of this state’s penal and vehicle codes, leaving no room for further regulation at the local level.”

The majority said state law differs from Stockton’s measure both by restricting forfeitures to fewer drug cases and by imposing a stricter standard of proof – proof beyond a reasonable doubt compared with a preponderance of evidence – before a car can be confiscated.

Kennard wrote in a footnote that the Legislature is free to pass a new law authorizing local governments to pass their own forfeiture measures.

Justice Carol Corrigan said in the dissent that the Stockton law is “a practical and responsible attempt by the city of Stockton to address problems it and many other cities face on a daily basis.”

Corrigan, joined by Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin, wrote, “Street commerce in drugs and sex forces innocent people to share their neighborhoods with pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers who use their streets as a bazaar for illegal transactions.”

Corrigan concluded, “It should not be the case that local governments require the permission of the state to protect their own citizens from nuisances that profoundly affect their quality of life and the quiet enjoyment of their own property.”

The office of Oakland City Attorney John Russo issued a statement saying, “As a result of the Supreme Court decision, we will work with the City Council to revise the ordinance accordingly.”

Oakland’s law, passed in 1997, was the first in the state to be enacted.

A number of other cities followed suit after a state appeals court in San Francisco upheld the measure in 2000 and the state Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal by two citizens represented by the ACLU later that year.

But in today’s ruling, the state high court took the legal step of officially disapproving of the appeals court decision in the Oakland case.

In the Stockton case, the ACLU submitted a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to overturn the law, saying, “Motor vehicles are a necessity of life in California.”

On the other side, the League of California Cities filed a brief asking the court to uphold the local laws.

Senior Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney Claudia McGee, who wrote the brief, said today, “It was a close decision. The court clearly did leave open the option of asking the state Legislature to clarify its intent.”

Bay City News

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