PROVO — Linda Cannon was a few payments away from owning the house she had lived in for 20 years when police found $7,000 of marijuana on her property.
As a result, her house was seized in 1995 and sold by Utah County for $80,000. But Cannon will get the money back, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week not to review a unanimous Utah Supreme Court ruling that said her house was sold wrongfully.
Because the high court didn't review the case, the state court's ruling stands as law, and the county must return funds to Cannon from the sale of her house.
The state high court ruled 5-0 in January in Cannon's favor, saying the value of property seized in drug crimes cannot exceed the scale of the drug operation.
Cannon's attorney, Randall Gaither, said the seizure of the home was unlawful because it violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the home had nothing to do with the drug operation.
Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson, who was involved in the seizure of Cannon's home, disagreed, saying her home was central to the drug operation. He called last week's decision a "huge blow for law enforcement."
Bryson believes the Supreme Court's decision to not hear the petition does not mean the court agrees with the state's ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court only hears one out of every thousand petitions they receive, Bryson said.
The Utah State Supreme Court ruling is now law in the state — and Bryson said this will have a dramatic effect on the way drug cases are prosecuted here.
"This is a decision that I think only drug dealers can feel good about," he said.
Bryson said the new ruling will inhibit the forfeiture of property seized by police officers.
Police officers seize property used by criminals to break the law — whether the instrument is a gun, a car or even an article of clothing — and then ask the court to forfeit the property. Forfeiture means the property
will be sold and the proceeds will go toward law enforcement.
The new ruling requires courts to consider the forfeiture as part of the fine. If the average fine for methamphetamine possession is $2,000, for example, and the drug pusher works out of a $15,000 Pontiac, prosecutors probably wouldn't seek forfeiture of the car, Bryson said.
Cannon said that after a five-year fight to get the money back from the sale of her house, most of it will go to legal fees.
"I just kind of screwed up a few years of my life, which I severely regret."
Cannon spent nearly a year in jail and was fined $9,600 for her crime. She served probation and said she has been clean from drugs for some time.