Christine Stuart photo
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal argues in court on behalf of the state (Christine Stuart photo)

A dozen soda and beer distributors went to court Tuesday hoping to stop the state from taking an estimated $6 million in unclaimed nickel deposits.

James Robertson Jr., the lawyer for the distributors, asked Hartford Superior Court Judge Julia Aurigemma to issue a temporary injunction against the state to stop it from enforcing the May 7 deadline—a date by which the companies would hand over the money to the state without penalty.

Judge Aurigemma did not rule on the case today. She asked Robertson to file another brief in the case by Monday.

“The retroactive taking is unconstitutional,” Robertson said. “It’s wrong and that’s why we’re here.” He said the distributors are not arguing over the state’s right to take the unclaimed nickels going forward, just the period between Dec. 1, 2008 and April 1, 2009.

For the past 30 years the state had allowed the distributors to keep the unclaimed nickels to help pay for the cost of picking up the cans and bottles from redemption centers. But as the state’s fiscal situation continued to worsen the state legislature and Gov. M. Jodi Rell passed a bill that may allow the state to take the unclaimed nickels going back to Dec. 1, 2008.

“This relatively small group of nickels raised by these family-owned businesses is not going to make a dent in the state’s budget deficit,” Robertson said. The state’s budget deficit for the next two years is estimated at more than $8 billion.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in no way is the state taking money away from these businesses by collecting the estimated $6 million in unclaimed deposits. He went on to argue that $6 million may seem like a small amount of money, but that it would be used to fund essential state services, including the functions of the Judicial Branch.

Blumenthal said there are four distributors that are not part of this lawsuit which have already paid the state their unclaimed deposits.

Aside from arguing whether the $6 million plays a significant role in the budget debate, Robertson argued that taking the deposits is a violation of the distributors property rights. He said if the judge decides not to grant the temporary injunction then she is sending a message to the state that constitutional rights can be trumped if the state is running a budget deficit.

Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Massicotte disagreed with Robertson’s conclusion.

Massicotte told the judge that since the original bottle bill did not specifically give the distributors the right to keep the unclaimed deposits, then she must conclude there is no constitutionally protected property right violation.

“What the legislature has given, the legislature can take away,” Massicotte told the judge. “A right may not just be an expectation.”

“At most what the plaintiff had was a unilateral expectation that they could keep the unclaimed deposits,” Massicotte said.

Robertson said looking at the statute and legislative intent, it’s still not clear the legislature intended to reach back four months and take those unclaimed deposits away from the distributors.

He told the judge it’s up to you to look at and decide the legislative intent.