- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2015

The Supreme Court ordered federal authorities to stop acting like bossy Marie Antoinettes, ruling Monday that the government can’t swoop in to seize someone’s property without paying a full, fair price for it.

In this case, that meant rejecting the government’s claim under an antiquated agriculture law that it was entitled to claim as much as half of a California raisin farmer’s crop to maintain market “stability” and keep prices up for other raisin farmers.

Harkening back to the Revolutionary War, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said property rights were a fundamental part of the country’s founding and that the government cannot casually trample on those liberties.

The 8-1 ruling established two key tenets: Possessions, such as cars, or in this case farm produce, are entitled to the same kinds of protections as real property such as land, and the government cannot get around those limits by insisting that the seizure is being conducted for the owner’s own good — in this case, a stable raisin market.

“The government has a categorical duty to pay just compensation when it takes your car, just as when it takes your home,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

Business groups hailed the ruling as a major check on the government’s grabbing behavior but said it was stunning that it took a Supreme Court ruling to curb federal authorities’ appetites.

The raisin ruling was one of a couple of decisions issued Monday that set protections against government power. In another, the court ruled that laws that appear to infringe on Fourth Amendment privacy rights can be challenged on their face and don’t need to wait for an egregious case to arise.

The seizure case stems from nearly $500,000 worth of raisins that the U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed as its share of the crop grown by California producers Marvin and Laura Horne under a 1937 law meant to create a stable market for agricultural products. The idea behind the program: Farmers growing crops on their own would tend to produce booms and busts in supply, while a managed system would lead to more predictable supplies and prices.

The Hornes refused to turn over their crop, the government sent trucks at 8 a.m. one day to collect them anyway, and the Hornes blocked the federal agents’ entry. The government then fined the couple about $480,000 for the raisins and assessed a further penalty of more than $200,000 for defying the federal government.

Administration attorneys argued that since the raisins were personal property, rather than real property such as real estate, the Constitution provides less protection. Even if that weren’t the case, the government argued, the raisins were taken to maintain a stable market and were sometimes sold with part of the profits going back to the growers, so the growers were getting a fair price whether they wanted to participate in the program or not.

In a final plea, the Obama administration argued that growers who didn’t like those terms were free to grow something else because there was no constitutional right to grow and sell one’s own raisins.

Chief Justice Roberts mocked that attitude, comparing it to the French queen whose possibly apocryphal or misinterpreted line “Let them eat cake” became a symbol of a government out of touch and helped spur the French Revolution.

“‘Let them sell wine’ is probably not much more comfort-ing to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history,” the chief justice chided the administration attorneys.

He told the government to scrap the seizure and cancel the fines.

Critics of the law hailed Chief Justice Roberts‘ ruling as self-evident and long-overdue.

“The U.S. Supreme Court held that it is a taking when the government takes your things,” said Robert McNamara, senior lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a civil rights legal firm that filed an amicus brief supporting the Hornes in the case. “The most remarkable thing about the decision is that the Supreme Court needed to say this in the first place.”

Seven justices sided with the chief justice in his ruling, though three of them thought the case should have been sent back to a lower court to decide exactly how much the seized raisins were worth.

The lone dissenter, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, defended the government’s right to take the raisins, saying that because the Agriculture Department sometimes ends up selling the raisins and paying some money to the growers, they aren’t completely deprived of their rights.

That’s true even if the proceeds don’t cover the farmers’ costs, she said.

“In some years, it may even turn out [and has turned out] to represent no net income. But whether and when that occurs turns on market forces for which the government cannot be blamed and to which all commodities — indeed, all property — are subject,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The seizure case is Horne v. Department of Agriculture.

The Fourth Amendment case, Los Angeles v. Patel, involved a motel owner who objected to a city ordinance that gave police the power to peruse the motel registry without first obtaining a warrant. Justice Sotomayor wrote the 5-4 majority opinion, saying Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches apply to the registry: If the motel owner doesn’t want to share the information, police should get a warrant or have a real suspicion that the owner is breaking the law.

Privacy advocates said the key finding was that the city ordinance could be challenged on its face rather than having to wait for an egregious case to pop up.

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