A divided California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that local governments cannot confiscate vehicles of drivers arrested on suspicion of buying drugs or soliciting prostitutes, the Los Angeles Times reports. Law enforcement officials say the decision will greatly curtail their efforts to crack down on such crimes. The ruling overturned a Stockton ordinance that allowed the seizure of a vehicle immediately after the driver’s arrest. More than two dozen cities from Oakland to Los Angeles have similar laws.
In its 4-3 decision, the court said only the state can mete out punishment for drug and prostitution offenses, and that without legislative authorization, cities can’t pass seizure ordinances that are harsher than state and federal laws. Even drivers suspected of buying a small amount of marijuana – punishable by a $100 fine – faced seizures under many ordinances. In dissent, Justice Carol Corrigan 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.” She said cities should have authority to protect themselves: “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.” The effect of the decision will be far-reaching, said John Lovell of the California Police Chiefs Association. “Forfeiture no longer appears to be an option.”