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State Supreme Court Won't Review Vehicle Seizure Law

October 19, 2000|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — In a move that may lead to an expansion of vehicle seizure laws around the state, the California Supreme Court declined Wednesday to review a ruling that local governments can seize the vehicles of people suspected of dealing drugs or soliciting prostitutes from a car.

The high court upheld a 1997 Oakland ordinance allowing such seizures, even if the suspect is not convicted or is acquitted. The law applies even if the owner wasn't in the car and did not know of or support the crime.

Following Wednesday's closely watched ruling, comparable seizure laws are expected to be adopted by cities and counties across the state. Sacramento already has a similar law. San Francisco lawmakers shelved the idea last month after concluding it was unconstitutional.

Without comment, a majority of the high court's justices declined to review the American Civil Liberties Union's challenge of the Oakland law. The ACLU claimed, among other things, that similar laws would proliferate, with cities viewing them as moneymaking ventures.

Only justices Stanley Mosk and Joyce L. Kennard voted to review the case.

The city has seized about 300 cars under the law and keeps the profits from their sale.

After a state appeals court ruling in July upheld the so-called "nuisance abatement" law, nearly a dozen California cities contacted Oakland to learn how they could enact similar seizure laws, said Oakland Deputy City Attorney Pelayo Llamas.

"The impetus for the City Council was really complaints from certain communities, which were essentially drive-through sex-and-drug bazaars," Llamas said.

Oakland's ordinance is harsher than state and federal forfeiture laws. The Legislature allows for the forfeiture of a vehicle used in drug sales and prostitution, but forbids seizures if the owner was not aware of the crime or if the car was a family's only mode of transportation.

The state law applies only when large quantities of drugs are involved. Oakland's ordinance allows seizures when a person is caught selling any amount of drugs.

Congress this year added a so-called "innocent owner" provision protecting owners of vehicles used in crimes without their knowledge.

"It's an extraordinarily harsh statute," said Nina Wilder, a lawyer for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which had urged the justices to nullify the ordinance. "There is something un-American about this, that they can take your car without you doing anything wrong."

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