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Search and Seizure: California Supreme Court Just Says No to Seizures of Drug Buyers' Cars

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.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Taking their cars?! That...

Taking their cars?! That... that's just sick.

David Dunn's picture

Alexander Hamilton vs. the War on Drugs

In Federalist No. 12, Alexander Hamilton wrote:

In France, there is an army of patrols (as they are called) constantly employed to secure their fiscal regulations against the inroads of the dealers in contraband trade… The arbitrary and vexatious powers with which the patrols are necessarily armed, would be intolerable in a free country.

Today, "contraband trade" would be illicit substances including cannabis. To create laws that call for the confiscation of property, mandatory minimum sentences, the power to put to death for the use and possession of cannabis is "intolerable in a free country."

Today, this "army of patrols" that possesses "arbitrary and vexatious powers" is the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Arresting and harassing medical cannabis users for seeking relief from ailments they can only achieve by using medical cannabis is a violation of Constitutional rights. The use of medical cannabis is called "the pursuit of happiness." If one is not healthy, it's hard to pursue happiness.

Destroying a farmer's hemp crop is likewise an abuse of arbitrary and vexatious powers, and is a violation of a farmer's constitutional rights for the pursuit of happiness.

In 1791, Hamilton wrote that hemp

is an article of importance enough to warrant the employment of extraordinary means in its favor.

Cannabis users and growers are the true patriots who realize that cannabis "is an article of importance enough to warrant the employment of extraordinary means in its favor," and in their favor.

States are perfectly within their constitutional rights to allow the medical use of cannabis as well as allowing it to be grown for the manufacture of products.

Hamilton wrote:

The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty…and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a federal government.

Federalist No. 9

State governments are as much a part of the federal government and exercise a major role in the system of checks and balances.

When the states abused constitutional rights of its citizens (such as imposing a poll tax), the federal government was well within its right of stopping that abuse.

When the federal government abuses the constitutional rights of its citizens for the pursuit of happiness (as it is doing with the war on drugs), state governments are well within their constitutional rights to override the unconstitutional acts of the federal government.

State governments are not inferior or subordinate to the federal government. State government are a "constituent part of the national sovereignty, and they have "exclusive…portions of sovereign power."

The right of state governments to regulate cannabis is exclusive to the states and not to the federal government and is a proper use of that "exclusive…sovereign power."

"The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

— Thomas Jefferson

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