In a closely divided 4-3 opinion, the California Supreme Court has ruled that local governments cannot seize the vehicles of people arrested on suspicion of buying drugs or using prostitutes, the two most common offenses targeted by local crime-fighting forfeiture ordinances in a number of California cities. The ordinances aim to reduce drug selling and street prostitution by seizing the cars of customers and thus deterring future customers.
The ruling came in O'Connell v. City of Stockton, where a local woman, Kelly O'Connell, challenged the city's "Seizure and Forfeiture of Nuisance Vehicles" ordinance. In a legal argument that was more about state versus municipal power than drug offenses or selling sex, the court held that only the state can set punishments for offenses under the state criminal code -- not municipalities.
Nor, the court held, can cities mete out punishments for state law violations that are harsher than the state laws themselves. In some California cases, drivers seeking to buy marijuana -- small-time pot possession is a $100 ticket in California -- have had their vehicles seized.
The punishment of drug and prostitution offenses "are matters of statewide concern that our Legislature has comprehensively addressed... leaving no room for further regulations at the local level," the court ruled.
While it was Stockton's ordinance that was challenged, the court's decision invalidates similar ordinances that began with Oakland, the first California city to adopt forfeiture laws in 1998. Since then, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Riverside, Inglewood and Ontario, among others, have enacted similar ordinances.
After the decision was announced, attorney Mark Clausen, who represented O'Connell, told the Los Angeles Times that "several thousand" vehicles had been seized throughout the state, with most drivers getting their cars back after paying "impound fees" of up to $2,000.
"These ordinances were just a public relations stunt," Clausen said.
But prosecutors and law enforcement officials told the Times seizing vehicles was a valuable law enforcement tactic. "Obviously, this is a very valuable tool for us," said Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. Harlan Ward. "It allows us to take care of community issues. It's a tool we use to work on the quality-of-life issues that affect neighborhoods."
The effect of the decision will be far-reaching, said John Lovell, counsel for the California Police Chiefs Association. "Forfeiture no longer appears to be an option," he said.