The ruling overturns the laws of more than two dozen cities from Oakland to Los Angeles that allowed police to seize an automobile immediately after the driver's arrest.
The 4-3 ruling said only state law can mete out punishment for drug and prostitution offenses and that without authorization from the California 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, which is a low-level crime punishable by a $100 fine, faced seizures in many of the cities with the ordinances.
"The illicit commercial activities prostitution and trafficking in controlled substances that are the focus of the City's vehicle forfeiture ordinance are matters of statewide concern that our Legislature has comprehensively addressed ... leaving no room for further regulation at the local level," wrote Justice Joyce Kennard for the majority.
Lawyer Mark Clausen, whose lawsuit against the city of Stockton led to Thursday's ruling, said that since Oakland instituted the first seizure law in 1997, "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, depending on the city.
"These ordinances were just a public relations stunt," Clausen said Thursday.
The state Supreme Court initially upheld the seizure laws in 2000 when it refused to consider an appeals court decision upholding Oakland's ordinance. Only after another appeals court ruled differently in 2005 did the Supreme Court take up the issue.
Stockton's lawyer Joseph Quinn said the Legislature can "easily pick this up" and pass a similar seizure law.
The ruling didn't address newer city laws that allow police to seize cars allegedly participating in illegal street races and "sideshows."
But Clausen said he believes the ruling applies to those racing laws as well. Last week, the city of Oakland paid Clausen $70,000 to settle his lawsuit alleging that Oakland's racing law was unconstitutional. A similar case is pending in Los Angeles.
Clausen has filed several related lawsuits throughout the state on behalf of taxpayers who allege the seizure laws are unconstitutional. He was joined by the Amercian Civil Liberties Union in the lawsuit against Stockton heard by the Supreme Court.
Many urban city councils said they enacted the seizure laws as a way to combat drug sales and prostitution and clean up some of their most blighted neighborhoods.
"The ordinance speaks to a narrow, pressing and quite real local concern," Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in her dissent, arguing that the local ordinances aren't in conflict with state law. "Street commerce in drugs and sex forces innocent people to share their neighborhoods with pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers who use their streets as a bazaar for illegal transactions."