SALEM, Ore. ?” The Oregon Supreme Court upheld a voter-passed law Thursday that requires a criminal conviction before police can seize and sell property tied to illegal activity.
The justices split 4-3 in overturning a lower court ruling that said the measure, adopted in 2000, made too many constitutional changes to be rolled into a single ballot measure.
Before the measure passed, police were able to use civil courts to seek forfeiture of money and property believed to have been obtained in criminal activity, such as drug buys, or purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity.
But civil liberties groups objected, saying police could take property even if its owner never was convicted of a crime and without proving their case by the high standard required in criminal trials.
The 2000 law, known as Measure 3, raised the bar, requiring police to get a criminal conviction before they could pursue a forfeiture. It also tightened the rules on what is subject to forfeiture, effectively slashing the amounts police could claim and cutting off a major source of funding for narcotics investigations.
David Fidanque of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon called Thursday’s ruling “great news" and a big step toward protecting people from unjustified seizures of their property.
“This ensures that as we try to take the profit out of crime that we only seize property from criminals," Fidanque said. “Prior to Measure 3, the complete burden was on the property owner to prove their innocence."
But a law enforcement official, Rob Bovett, lawyer for the Lincoln Interagency Narcotics Team, called the ruling a disappointment and said Measure 3 has hurt the fight against Oregon’s methamphetamine problem.
Measure 3 “has helped to dismantle or cripple many Oregon drug task forces at the most critical time in our meth epidemic," he said, and it has “let convicted meth dealers keep much of their ill-gotten gains."
Bovett said the measure also has effectively eliminated most county drunken driving forfeiture programs.
Hoping to address the problem, the 2005 Oregon Legislature approved a new civil forfeiture law to again give police access to some of the money taken from drug dealers.
The bill was aimed at striking a middle ground between law enforcement officers and civil libertarians.
However, it was designed to take effect only if the Supreme Court struck down Measure 3. Given Thursday’s ruling, Measure 3 will remain the law.
In July 2003, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Measure 3. It relied on a benchmark 1998 state Supreme Court ruling that has been used by courts to overturn several voter-passed initiatives, including a property compensation measure also approved by voters in 2000.
The Supreme Court said in the 1998 case that proposed constitutional changes must be closely related to be included in one ballot measure.
The appeals court said the forfeiture measure’s separate provisions requiring criminal convictions and restricting the uses of proceeds didn’t meet the high court’s standard because there isn’t a logical relationship between those two provisions.
However, in Thursday’s decision, a four-justice majority of the Supreme Court concluded that even if the measure contained more than one substantive change, the changes are closely related, meaning Measure 3 did not violate the 1998 standard.
In their dissent, Justice Rives Kistler said the three justices in the minority would have applied the 1998 standard to the forfeiture measure, finding it unconstitutional.