I'll Take That

When the State of New Jersey confiscated her car in 1995, Lois McDermott got mad. Then she decided to get even.

McDermott's son Jackie used her 1990 Honda Accord --against her wishes--to transport and sell heroin and to assault and escape from a police officer. After Jackie pleaded guilty, the state moved to seize the vehicle. McDermott challenged the forfeiture, which was ordered after a summary hearing, as a violation of her right to a jury trial. An appeals court agreed, and so did the state Supreme Court, which ordered jury trials for all cases of forfeiture involving innocent property (i.e., noncontraband).

State attorneys framed the issue as a classic battle between individual liberty and government oppression--and demanded that government oppression triumph. They even compared themselves to the English tax collectors of colonial times, and McDermott to Patrick Henry. Wrote the court, "doubtless, the right to trial by jury will be an inconvenience to the State when it seeks to forfeit innocent property. Mere inconvenience, however, cannot justify the denial of a constitutional right."

With no appeals remaining, the state will just have to live with that inconvenience. Says Elizabeth Macron, McDermott's attorney, "it'll keep 'em honest."

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