ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Maryland's Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, recently decided unanimously that the City of Baltimore's recent attempt to seize a businessman's property first and answer questions later was not constitutional.
Justice Dale Cathell wrote the opinion Feb. 8 for the Court.
"Reverence is due the property rights clause just as is due the other great provisions of the Fifth Amendment," the court correctly stated. "It is a fundamental right."
George Valsamaki's three-story building in Baltimore that contains a bar and package goods store called "Magnet" was the building in question. The City of Baltimore filed a petition for condemnation and a petition for immediate possession and title on March 9, 2006. The Circuit Court for Baltimore County granted the petitions a week later, provided Valsamaki did not file an answer to the petitions within a 10-day period.
Valsamaki did file an answer, and the circuit court agreed with him that he was still using the property for business purposes. The City's petition was denied, and it appealed.
The "quick take" is an emergency procedure that allows a government to take immediate possession of a person's property and settle legal issues later. In Valsamaki's case, the reason for Baltimore's seizure was not classified an emergency. Instead, the City wanted it so it could be transferred to a private developer.
"The City failed to provide sufficient reasons for its immediate possession of and title of the subject Property," Carthell wrote. "Without evidence that the continuing existence of a particular building or property is immediately injurious to the health and safety of the public, or is otherwise immediately needed for public use, there is no way to justify the need for immediate possession of the Property via quick-take condemnation proceedings.
"This is as opposed to offering a property owner the full process to which he or she is constitutionally due, via the exercise of the regular condemnation power."
"The basic rule in America has always been that government must give you your day in court before it takes your property," said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Timothy Sandefur, who filed a friend of the court brief in the case. "But in Maryland and other places, bureaucrats have been exploiting their emergency powers when it's not an emergency. They try to take property first, and ask questions later. It's wonderful to see the court issue such a strongly worded decision striking down such practices.
"Unfortunately, both the federal Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals allow government to take land through eminent domain and give it to private developers. But under the quick take procedure, bureaucrats don't even have to go through a trial to figure out whether their plan is legal, or what the property is worth. That means that if the owner eventually wins in court, he comes back to find that his property has been destroyed in the meantime. So the rules are unfair to begin with-and government doesn't even play by those rules."