A sharply divided California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that local governments cannot confiscate the vehicles of drivers arrested on suspicion of buying drugs or soliciting prostitutes, a decision law enforcement officials say will greatly curtail their efforts to crack down on such crimes.
The ruling came against a Stockton ordinance that allowed the seizure of a vehicle immediately after the driver's arrest, but it essentially overturns the laws of more than two dozen cities from Oakland to Los Angeles.
In its 4-3 decision, the court ruled that only the state can mete out punishment for drug and prostitution offenses, and that without authorization from the Legislature, cities can't pass seizure ordinances that are harsher than state and federal laws. Even drivers suspected of buying a small amount of marijuana -- a low-level crime punishable by a $100 fine -- faced seizures under many ordinances.
These "are matters of statewide concern that our Legislature has comprehensively addressed ... leaving no room for further regulations at the local level," the court ruled.
Oakland became 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, according to lawyers in the case.
Attorney Mark Clausen, whose lawsuit against Stockton led to Thursday's ruling, said that "several thousand" automobiles have been seized throughout the state. He said most cities release the cars after drivers pay an impound fee ranging from $200 to $2,000.
"These ordinances were just a public relations stunt," Clausen said Thursday.
Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo had joined with Stockton and the California League of Cities to urge the high court to allow the seizure of vehicles used in suspected criminal activities. Stockton had declared the cars a nuisance and authorized their seizure and, after a hearing, their sale.
The majority decision by Justice Joyce L. Kennard was met with an impassioned dissent from Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who wrote that citizens should not be forced "to share their neighborhoods with pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers who use their streets as a bazaar for illegal transactions."
Corrigan said cities should have the authority to protect themselves from this form of urban blight.
"The aged homeowner who must shut herself inside while drug transactions are conducted in her front yard, and the parents who must walk their children to school while commercial sex acts are performed in cars parked at the curb pay a heavy and local price," she wrote.
The effect of the decision will be far-reaching, said John Lovell, counsel for the California Police Chiefs Assn. "Forfeiture no longer appears to be an option," he said.
The ordinances have been used primarily to counter street crime in residential neighborhoods, said Lovell and Joseph Quinn, the lawyer for Stockton. "It was happening in the neighborhoods. Neighborhoods rose up and said, 'Something's got to be done.' Stockton enacted this as a response," Quinn said.
The theory is that "buyers are more readily dissuaded than sellers, [so] these ordinances were focused on buyers, not the Colombian producers or the madams in Beverly Hills. Temporarily losing your car can be an effective deterrent," Quinn said.
"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."
Los Angeles has seized 62 vehicles in the last 18 months from street drug deals, Ward said. Prostitution has declined in Hollywood, he said, since police began seizing the vehicles of suspected johns two years ago. So far this year, Ward said, 168 cars have been seized in prostitution cases.
Delgadillo said he agreed "with the dissenting opinion" in the court's ruling. He said Los Angeles' ordinance has been upheld on appeal, as was Oakland's. But other appeals court panels struck down similar ordinances from Sacramento and Stockton. He said the Supreme Court ruling Thursday was "a close call."
Lovell pointed out that under state law, cars can be held for a maximum of 48 hours in prostitution cases.
"They can take the car and impound it," Lovell said, leaving the client to "have to explain to his wife what happened to the family car."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.