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, for one, 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 money making 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 their own similar seizure law, said Oakland Deputy City Attorney Pelayo Llamas.
“The impetus for the City Council was really complaints from certain communities which were essentially drive-thru sex-and-drug bazaars,” Llamas said. “People were sick of having lines of cars in their streets with this activity going on.”
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. Oakland seizes vehicles even when owners don’t know about the crime.
“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 hey can take your car without you doing anything wrong.”
Last year, Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill that sought to stop the seizures. The bill, AB662 by Assemblyman Herb Wesson, D-Los Angeles, would have barred forfeitures in cases not involving criminal convictions.
The ACLU challenged the case on behalf of Oakland resident Sam Horton, who sued as a taxpayer. His vehicle was not involved in any criminal wrongdoing. Horton was unable to challenge the ordinance on constitutional grounds because his rights were not affected.
Instead, the suit centered on the claim that Oakland was not free to enact the ordinance because it conflicted with the California Legislature’s laws on vehicle seizures.
The case is Horton vs. City of Oakland, S091145.