HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s highest court on Thursday reined in the power of prosecutors to seize people’s property through civil actions.
The justices ruled unanimously that prosecutors must prove a property played a significant role in committing a crime, and its value must be proportionate to the offense.
The decision gave new life to a 72-year-old woman’s legal quest to regain a used minivan and $54,000 west Philadelphia home she argues were unfairly taken after her adult son was investigated for selling small amounts of marijuana.
“I think it’s a really big change — I think it makes it much harder for the commonwealth to take people’s property without going through a much more detailed and much more comprehensive analysis,” said attorney Jessica Anthony, lawyer for property owner Elizabeth Young.
The Philadelphia district attorney’s office issued a statement that characterized the ruling as a clarification. It said prosecutors retain the right to seek civil forfeiture of property linked to illegal drug activity in what it called “appropriate cases.”
Rich Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the 73-page ruling was still being reviewed and that it was too soon to say “how it really is going to play out in the real world.”
Long said prosecutors in many parts of the state routinely consider such factors as proportionality when pursuing civil forfeiture.
The court decision noted the attorney general’s office warned of a “likely increase in the number of sham or strawman owners in forfeiture cases” if a lower-court decision in Young’s favor was upheld.
The decision said it is not constitutional for the government to take a property if its value is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the crime. The justices directed courts to consider nonmonetary factors, such as the impact that seizing a car or home might have on third parties, or on the ability of the property owner to make a living.
Trial courts also must consider the “harshness” of the forfeiture and how much, if anything, the owner knew about the crime.
“Assessing the gravity of the offense includes a determination of the degree of knowledge of a property owner,” wrote Justice Debra Todd. “Even a property owner, while not wholly without knowledge or granting consent, may lack full knowledge of criminal activity, or may bear only nominal or token blame for the illegal conduct serving as the foundation for the forfeiture.”
In Pennsylvania, all of the proceeds from forfeiture end up in the hands of law enforcement.
“As a result,” Todd wrote, “some have suggested there is a financial incentive to maximize the seizure of forfeitable property.”
Young’s case was sent back to court in Philadelphia for analysis under the newly articulated standards, starting with whether the trial judge adequately considered her “innocent owner” defense.
Prosecutors had argued Young was given notice of her son’s activities when police searched her home twice, and that she had the ability to prohibit drug sales on the property.
Anthony said Young’s home on South 62nd Street and the van have been under control of the city since she lost the forfeiture case in 2012. She had owned the house since the 1970s.