The Supreme Court has ruled for a California raisin grower and declared it was unconstitutional for a government-backed agricultural board to claim control of about one-third of his crop.
The justices said Marvin Horne from Fresno deserves to be compensated for the official seizure of his personal property.
The 5th Amendment forbids the government from taking private property without paying "just compensation," and the high court said this protection applies to raisins as well as real estate.
Chief Justice John Roberts spoke for a 5-4 majority. Several of the liberal justices agreed in theory but stopped short of saying Horne was due money for part of his raisin crop.
The ruling deals a blow to the last of the New Deal-era farm programs that authorize growers to join together to prop up the market prices for their products. The raisin board had the support of most growers, and its "marketing orders" had the backing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Horne, however, preferred to sell raisins on his own, and he accused the board of "stealing his crop."
The USDA defended the board and said these collective actions helped to stabilize the market and prevent sharp swings in prices. The "reserve" portion of the crop is sometimes sold overseas or is given to schools as part of the school lunch program.
Government lawyers said growers like Horne benefited in the end because they obtained higher prices for raisins sold on the open market.
Chief Justice Roberts said the "reserve requirement imposed by the Raisin Committee is a clear physical taking. Actual raisins are transferred from the growers to the government."
The 5th Amendment requires the government to pay "just compensation" if it seizes someone's land for public use, and the same principle applies to raisins, he said.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed.
The ruling means the Hornes do not have to pay the large fines imposed by the USDA.
"The Hornes should simply be relieved of the obligation to pay the fine and associated civil penalty they were assessed when they resisted the government's effort to take their raisins," Roberts said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented and said the government had not taken all of Horne's property but simply regulated the sale of raisins.
Three others, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, said a lower court should first consider how the Hornes benefited from higher raisin prices before calculating how much compensation they deserve.
California produces 99% of the nation's raisins and about 40% of the world crop.
Horne's victory was long in coming. In 2004, he was accused of violating the USDA's marketing order for failing to turn over the required "reserve" portion of his crop in 2003 and 2004. He was hit with fines of $685,000.
He then went to federal court in California, arguing the seizure of his raisins was unconstitutional. He lost before a district judge and twice before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the marketing orders were a type of business regulation.
On Twitter: @DavidGSavage