March 7, 2007, by
In Hernandez v. City of Sacramento, the Third Appellate District addressed the complex field of civil asset forfeiture laws. Civil asset forfeiture laws were first instituted by the federal government in the 1970s (21 U.S.C. 881), and then gained popularity in California in the 1980s (Health & Safety Code ("H&S Code") section 11469, et seq.). More recently these laws spread to municipalities throughout the state (see, e.g., Horton v. City of Oakland (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 580.) Civil forfeitures are actions in rem intended to be remedial in nature "'by removing the tools and profits' from persons engaged in the illicit drug trade." (People v. Superior Court (Plascencia) (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 409, 418, 430, quoting H&S Code section 11469, subd. (j).) Federal, state, and municipal law enforcement agencies share the proceeds according to varying formulas exacted by each jurisdiction.
California's civil asset forfeiture law has endured many revisions. The present version of the California forfeiture statute requires that the government prove the owner of an interest in the property knowingly consented to the illicit use of the property, either beyond a reasonable doubt or by clear and convincing evidence, depending upon the nature of the property involved. (H&S Code sections 11488.4, subd. (i), 11488.5, subd. (d)(1).) H&S Code sections 11469 through 11495 regulate drug-related asset forfeiture, including forfeiture of vehicles. The statutes contain strict substantive and procedural conditions for the civil forfeiture of a vehicle used in the commission of a specified controlled substance offense. They also specify in detail the purpose, scope, and procedures of seizure and forfeiture, and the permissible uses to which the proceeds may be put. Unlike the Sacramento forfeiture ordinance in question, the H&S Code provisions include the requirement of a criminal conviction, proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the conditions justifying forfeiture, and the protection of innocent parties who hold an interest in the vehicle. (H & S Code sections 11470, 11488.4.)
In 1997, the City of Oakland enacted an ordinance authorizing the seizure, forfeiture, and sale of vehicles used to solicit prostitution or acquire drugs "after citizens complained about the nuisance created by persons driving through neighborhoods to buy drugs or solicit acts of prostitution." (Horton, supra, 82 Cal.App.4th at p. 584.) Sacramento also enacted a nuisance ordinance to rid its residential neighborhoods of the blight associated with prostitution and drug buying. In Horton, the First District Court of Appeal rejected the preemption challenge.