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South Dakota Supreme Court Upholds Jury Trial for Car Seizures
The South Dakota Supreme Court rules that government may not seize automobiles without giving the owner a fair trial by jury.

South Dakota Supreme Court
The South Dakota Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the state's property seizure law as unconstitutional insofar as it denied property owners the right to a fair trial before a jury to defend their automobiles and cash. The law had given police authority to seize automobiles, cash and airplanes so long as they could cite "probable cause" that the items potentially were used to transport drugs. After an item was seized, it was up to the owner to prove that it should not be taken in the first place.

"Any owner... shall have the burden of proving that the property seized is not subject to forfeiture under this chapter," the law stated. (SDCL 34-20B-88)

In this case, police impounded the blue 1969 Pontiac belonging to Ora Mae Baade. Officials claimed the car transported drugs around July 13, 2006, so they seized it along with $4,404.83 in cash. Baade said that it was her car but she did not know her son's use of the vehicle involved drugs. She demanded a jury trial to decide the matter, and a lower court quickly denied her request.

Despite the unambiguous language in the state constitution, courts have systematically restricted the types of cases that can be heard by jury. The supreme court, in this case, argued that the provision stating, "The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate and shall extend to all cases at law without regard to the amount in controversy" applied to forfeiture cases. The high court did so because at the time the South Dakota Constitution was ratified similar trials would have been held before a jury.

"The right to a jury trial may be an inconvenience to the state when it seeks to forfeit allegedly misused property," the unanimous court wrote. "However, mere inconvenience would be insufficient reason for denying a traditional and substantial constitutional right."

Car seizure jury trials are available in California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont and Oklahoma. They are denied to residents in Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee and North Dakota. The full text of the decision is available in a 136k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File South Dakota v. One 1969 Blue Pontiac Firebird v. (Supreme Court of South Dakota, 6/27/2007)

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