HELENA, Mont. (CN) — The Montana Supreme Court ruled that a man is entitled to a jury trial in his civil forfeiture case after a state investigation uncovered more than three pounds of processed marijuana and 300 marijuana plants on his property.
In the Supreme Court's 18-page opinion, Justice Laurie McKinnon outlines the somewhat tangled history of the case, which started in 2011 when the state searched Mike Chilinski's property as part of an investigation into an illegal malamute-breeding operation.
He was eventually convicted on over 90 counts of animal cruelty and sentenced to 30 years in prison, 25 of them suspended, according to a 2012 article from the Helena Independent Record.
The search connected to the animal cruelty charges also revealed evidence of a marijuana-growing operation, which led to a further state investigation and the current forfeiture case.
The federal government stepped in and prosecuted Chilinski on drug charges, prompting the state to drop its criminal investigation. However, the feds didn't pursue the forfeiture case, so when the state resumed it, it did so without prosecuting Chilinski for a crime.
In 2015, Montana changed its law so that civil forfeiture requires a criminal conviction. But this was not the case in June 2013 when the state filed its action against Chilinski, and its civil forfeiture statute required only that the case be heard by a judge. The Montana Legislature repealed this provision in 2015, allowing for juries to hear these cases.
Chilinski argued that the forfeiture action violated his right to a trial by jury as mandated in the Montana and U.S. Constitutions. The district court rejected this argument, reasoning that the case was to determine title to Chilinski's property, an equitable claim that was exempt from the right to a jury trial. The court forfeited his property to the state after finding that he had, in fact, used his property to make drugs.
McKinnon, delivering the Supreme Court's unanimous opinion, ruled that the right to a jury trial in the Montana Constitution is grounded in common law but does not extend to cases grounded purely in equity. However, a given case may include issues relating to both equity and law, and, historically, common-law courts conducted their trials, including forfeiture trials, in front of juries.
"[T]he right to a jury trial on legal issues remains inviolate and may not be compromised because it is combined with equitable issues in one action," McKinnon wrote in her 18-page opinion, delivered Monday. "After consideration of both American and English common law, federal jurisprudence, and decisions from our sister states that have considered the issue in cases involving similar statutes, we join the majority of states and federal courts and conclude that there is a right to trial by jury guaranteed by . . . Montana's Constitution in an in rem forfeiture proceeding."
Forfeiture is, by nature, punitive, and the state in this case intended to use it as a penalty against Chilinski, McKinnon reasoned. Therefore, the case was not grounded purely in equity.
"[W]e note that forfeiture statutes operate to transfer property rights to the state, as a penalty against the owners for misuse of the property. The District Court here placed too narrow an interpretation on the issue by characterizing the proceeding as only one of determining title," she wrote for the seven-judge panel.
All of this means that Montana's civil forfeiture statute's requirement barring a jury trial is unconstitutional, and even though the Legislature struck it in 2015, the rest of the statute is still in effect.
"Our determination that Section 26 of the Montana Constitution guarantees a right to jury trial for civil in rem forfeiture proceedings does not require that the forfeiture proceeding against Chilinski be dismissed," McKinnon wrote.
Christian D. Tweeten, from Missoula, Montana, represented Chilinski while Steven C. Haddon, Jefferson County Attorney in Boulder, Montana, represented the state. Neither could be reached for comment Wednesday.