HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court says citizens have a right to trial by jury before the state can take private property in civil forfeiture cases, a ruling that bolsters a law that state legislators passed last year to limit police seizures.
Tuesday’s unanimous ruling by the high court puts Montana in line with most other states that have upheld jury trials in civil forfeiture proceedings.
“After consideration of both American and English common law, federal jurisprudence and decisions from our sister states … we join the majority of states and federal courts and conclude that there is a right to trial by jury,” Justice Laurie McKinnon wrote in the opinion.
Law enforcement officials can seize land, money and other assets if they can show probable cause that the property was used in illegal activity. Critics such as the ACLU have said it allows police to profit from crime.
University of Montana law professor Andrew King-Ries said the ruling will probably result in fewer forfeiture actions taken by law enforcement officials if they have to go through jury trials to do so.
“It used to be a pretty easy process for the state,” King-Ries said. “That process is going to get more difficult and cumbersome, so the state may make the decision more often not to pursue forfeiture.”
Civil forfeiture proceedings are filed against the property itself and had not required criminal charges against the property’s owner until the Montana Legislature changed the law in 2015. Now, law enforcement officials are barred from taking any personal property before the owner is convicted of a crime.
The pre-2015 law also required forfeiture hearings of property used in drug manufacturing to be held without a jury. The new law strikes that requirement, but it does not expressly grant the right of a trial by jury.
The Montana Department of Justice and the ACLU of Montana declined to comment on the ruling.
The decision orders a jury trial for a Jefferson County man whose land was seized after authorities found more than 300 marijuana plants while investigating an animal-cruelty case in 2011.
Mike Chilinski was convicted in federal court of manufacturing marijuana, but he did not face state drug charges. However, Jefferson County officials sought the forfeiture of Chilinski’s property in state court in 2013.
The judge turned the property over to the state after denying Chilinski’s request for a trial by jury. The judge in the case cited the law that existed at the time that said proceedings are to be held without a jury.
The high court ruled that law, which has been supplanted by the 2015 law, was unconstitutional.
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