An Alameda County judge this week (10/8) rejected a challenge of an Oakland ordinance which allows the city to confiscate the cars of alleged drug buyers and people who do business with prostitutes.
The case involved a woman whose car was seized after a friend of her husband attempted to buy drugs while using the vehicle. The woman was not present at the time of the man's arrest.
The challenge, mounted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in July, charged that the ordinance violated the spirit of California law, which they said implied that only the state should be able to seize vehicles. Superior Court Judge Henry Needham Jr. disagreed.
Oakland Deputy City Attorney Marcia Meyers told The Week Online that community support for the new law was so strong that the proceeding had to be moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate spectators. Those spectators were thrilled with the decision.
"You've got to understand that in parts of Oakland, entire blocks have become open air drug bazaars. For people living in those communities, it's impossible to let their kids out of doors, or even to be assured of their own safety" Meyers said. "It's at the point where one block will be known for heroin, another for meth, another for crack... and with the prostitution, why should an elementary school kid have to be confronted with someone bargaining for, or even having sex on his block. It's quite apparent that arresting a whole bunch of low-level dealers hasn't impacted these communities one bit. By creating this pressure on the consumers of these goods, on the demand side, we have seen some results."
Individuals who have their cars seized have only ten days to file a claim with the city for a hearing, otherwise their cars automatically become property of the city. The fee for filing the claim with the court is $193.
Tom Gordon, executive director of Forfeiture Endangers Americans' Rights (FEAR) told The Week Online "Over 80% of the Americans who have property seized are never charged with criminal conduct. Most of these laws are simply an excuse for governments to take possession of private property. There are plenty of laws on the books to punish people for wrongdoing."
"Another troubling aspect of these laws is the fact that a person has a very short time to respond. Usually, as in the Oakland ordinance, they have ten days before they lose all rights to their property. Add to that the fact that once they do respond, they will have to hire a lawyer, out of their own pockets, to represent them, and that the burden of proof is on the citizen rather than on the government, and you begin to understand why 90% of forfeitures are never contested. The government not only wants your property, they want it without having to justify their actions."
Meyers told the San Francisco Chronicle that her office has been inundated with calls from other cities who would like to pass similar ordinances. And being that the decision might well clear the way those cities, Oakland's chief of police, Joseph Samuels, warned in the Chronicle that "(this law) will be coming to a neighborhood near you."
(You can find FEAR online at http://www.fear.org.)