Okla. Took Punishing|Drug Dealers Too Far

     OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (CN) – Punishing drug dealers for the harm their drug sales cause unconstitutionally tramples their due-process rights, an Oklahoma appeals court ruled.
     Oklahoma’s Drug Dealer Liability Act permits a person who is harmed by illegal drugs to recover civil damages from those who participate in the illegal drug market.
     Three minors sued 51 convicted drug dealers in Tulsa County, claiming damages they suffered because of their mother’s marijuana use.
     In moving to dismiss the charges against him, Chase Patterson Bain-Holloway claimed that the act impermissibly imposed liability without any showing of a casual relationship between his actions and the plaintiffs’ damages.
     The plaintiffs meanwhile defended the act by saying its scheme of relaxed causation requirements has a rational relation to the government’s interest in protecting families from the harms of illegal drug use.
     A judge in Tulsa dismissed the lawsuit, and a divided three-judge panel of the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals affirmed last week.
     “The act enables a plaintiff to identify a class of defendants composed of persons who have ‘a criminal conviction pursuant to state drug laws or the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970,'” Presiding Judge Brian Jack Goree wrote for the court. “Those convicted are ‘estopped from denying participation in the illegal drug market’ and the conviction is prima facie evidence of participation in the illegal drug market. In communities where a high proportion of drug dealers successfully evade law enforcement, the statute creates an unreasonable risk that those who become liable for damages are paying for wrongful conduct that was actually caused by another.”
     Judge Kenneth Buettner concurred in the Aug. 27 decision, but Judge Robert Bell dissented.
     “The majority loses sight of the underlying principle that, because of the nature of the illicit drug trade, defendants brought into court under the Drug Dealer Liability Act are in the best position to supply exculpatory evidence,” Bell wrote. “Such a shift of the burden of persuasion would most definitely violate the Due Process Clause in a criminal proceeding, but in a civil case the situation is less clear. The Supreme Court of the United States has confirmed the notion that statutory presumptions in civil proceedings receive less scrutiny than statutory presumptions of criminal proceedings.”

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