Thursday, April 12, 2012
A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled this week that the Oklevueha Native American Indian Church of Hawaii's action under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeking declaratory and injunctive relief barring the government from enforcing the Controlled Substances Act against them could move forward. The court ruled in Oklevueha Native American Chuch of Hawaii v. Holder that the plaintiffs' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief were ripe and that the plaintiff had associational standing.
The case arises out of the plaintiffs' claim that they fear federal prosecution for its members' cultivation, consumption, possession, and distribution of marijuana for religious purposes. The plaintiffs say that the federal government already seized a pound of marijuana from FedEx that was addressed to a church leader and intended for Oklevueha use. They now fear federal prosecution.
The district court dismissed the case for lack of ripeness and lack of associational standing, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the plaintiff's case was a valid preenforcement claim, becuase (1) the church articulated a "concrete plan" to violate the law, (2) the government communicated a specific warning or threat to enforce the law against the church, and (3) there was a history of past prosecution or enforcement under the statute. As to (2), the court ruled that the unusual posture of the case couldn't render the case unripe:
Plaintiffs need not allege a threat of future prosecution because the statute has already been enforced against them. When the Government seized Plaintiffs' marijuana pursuant to the CSA, a definite and concrete dispute regarding the lawfulness of that seizure came into existence. . . . This case is unique in that unlike most enforcements of criminal statutes, the seizure did not result in a criminal proceeding that could have afforded Plaintiffs the opportunity to assert their constitutional and statutory challenges to the enforcement of the CSA against them. But it does not follow that because this enforcement and seizure of property did not provide Plaintiffs a process in which to raise their claims, those claims are not now ripe.
Op. at 3807. The court also ruled that the plaintiffs' case was prudentially ripe, and that the church had associational standing.