In City of Los Angeles v. 2000 Jeep Cherokee, (— Cal.Rptr. 3d —, 2008 WL 324829, Cal.App. 2 Dist., Feb. 7, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a Los Angeles ordinance, which authorizes the seizure and forfeiture of a vehicle used to solicit prostitution, is preempted by state law. The Court of Appeal held that the ordinance is preempted by state law and is, therefore, void.
Richard Reinsdorf’s (“Reinsdorf”) vehicle was seized in April 2005 when he was arrested for soliciting prostitution. The City of Los Angeles (“City”) notified Reinsdorf that it had initiated forfeiture proceedings under Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.70, which authorizes both the seizure and forfeiture of a vehicle used to solicit prostitution. Reinsdorf asserted that section 41.70 was preempted by state law. The trial court agreed and entered judgment in favor of Reinsdorf and against the City. The trial court also awarded Reinsdorf attorney fees in the amount of $49,735.90.
The City appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision. However, the California Supreme Court granted review of the case but held its decision in the case pending its decision in O’Connell v. City of Stockton (2007) 128 Cal.4th 1061. The Supreme Court ultimately decided in O’Connell that state law preempted a City of Stockton ordinance that authorized the seizure and forfeiture of vehicles used to solicit prostitution or to acquire drugs. The Supreme Court transferred Reinsdorf’s case back to the Court of Appeal to reconsider in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in O’Connell.
The Court of Appeal held that section 41.70 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code is preempted by state law. The court affirmed the judgment of the trial court, which granted judgment in favor of Reinsdorf, including the award of attorney fees. Section 41.70 declares as a nuisance any vehicle used to solicit or engage in an act of prostitution and provides that “[a]ll right, title and interest in any [such] vehicle . . . shall vest in the City upon commission of the act giving rise to the nuisance under this section.”
However, under article XI, section 7 of the California Constitution, a local ordinance may not conflict with general state laws. “If otherwise valid local legislation does conflict with state law, it is preempted by such law and is void — and such a conflict exists if the local
legislation duplicates, contradicts, or enters an area fully occupied by general law, either expressly or by legislative implication.” A local ordinance is coextensive with state law when it merely duplicates state law. A local ordinance contradicts “state law when it is inimical to or cannot be reconciled with state law; and it enters a field fully occupied by state law either (1) when the Legislature expressly manifests its intent to occupy the legal area or (2) when the Legislature impliedly occupies the field.” Here, the court found that the Legislature expressly manifested its intent to occupy the legal field at issue.
The Vehicle Code section 21 precludes local regulation of matters covered by the Vehicle Code “absent express legislative authorization.” The Vehicle Code covers the use of vehicles in soliciting prostitution. Section 22659.5 of the Vehicle Code allows a city or county to adopt a five-year pilot program under which any vehicle used in soliciting prostitution may be treated as a public nuisance. However, the program does not authorize forfeiture of such a vehicle. Because there is no express authorization for any other form of local regulation in this area, section 21 of the Vehicle Code precludes a local ordinance seeking to regulate the use of a vehicle in soliciting prostitution by requiring that such a vehicle must be forfeited. Therefore, because no authorization exists for the City to regulate in this area, section 41.70 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code is expressly preempted by state law.
The court also found that the trial court properly awarded attorney fees to Reinsdorf because the “litigation of the preemption issue established an important right affecting the public interest.” The Code of Civil Procedure, section 1021.5 provides that attorney fees may be awarded if (1) a “party prevails in an action involving the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest;” (2) the lawsuit “confers a significant benefit on the general public or a broad class of people;” and (3) the financial burden of private enforcement of the important right transcends the suing party’s personal interest in the controversy.
Here, Reinsdorf’s lawsuit involved an important public right affecting the public interest. The City took vehicles and deprived the owners of the forfeited vehicles of their use under the direction of an ordinance which was expressly preempted by state law. “Because Reinsdorf’s lawsuit forced the City to abandon its ordinance and comply with state law, the public interest was served — and no more was required.” Furthermore, the trial court’s ruling affected a large class of persons. Although this particular ordinance only applied to persons who used a vehicle for prostitution, the fact that the City adopted the ordinance “proves the problem was sufficiently pervasive to warrant exercise of the City’s legislative powers.” Also, the ordinance not only affected those driving the vehicle at the time of the incident, but also “non-driving owners” of the involved vehicle such as lienholders, spouses, employers, and rental car companies.
Finally, the financial burden of this litigation outweighed Reinsdorf’s personal interest in regaining his vehicle. The trial court took into consideration the fact that Reinsdorf had rejected the City’s offer to settle the case for money and decided to pursue the case knowing that he would delay the time in which his vehicle was returned to him. These actions showed that his “motivation and burden did transcend his own financial self-interest.” The court, however, rejected Reinsdorf’s request for an award of additional attorney fees on appeal.