Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substances Forfeitures Act (Act) has received quite a bit of media attention. This is due to a recent lawsuit filed last month (August 2014) by a nonprofit group. The lawsuit alleges that the Act is unconstitutional.
Background of the Act
Passed in 1988, the law was designed to make it harder for citizens in Pennsylvania to sell drugs. Under the law, the police can seize money, cash, cars, and other property like guns, etc. In addition, the law allows the police/District Attorney’s office to seize a house or other real property, if there is evidence of a nexus or connection between the drug dealing and the house.
The following example shows how the Act works. An adult child living in his parent’s home sells drugs out of the home. He is arrested and convicted of the crime. The police and DA’s office move to seize the parent’s home. Even if the parent has no actual knowledge of the drug dealing, the home can still be seized and forfeited. The parent will be kicked out of the home and could literally lose it. This scenario is quite common in Philadelphia County.
Financial Motives for Prosecutor Offices and Police Departments
The lawsuit alleges that the police and DA’s office in Philadelphia County conduct a disproportionate number of home seizures, to the tune of nearly $6 million dollars each year. That money is then split between the police department and the DA’s office and provides funding for salaries, drug investigations, etc.
The Actual Effects – Poor and Immigrants Suffer the Most
The Act spells out vague procedures for forfeiture actions. While the Act sufficiently details how notice of a forfeiture action must be given, the rest of the law detailing the procedures is sparse. The procedure for forfeiture actions is only one statute and that’s it. Procedures for other types of actions are laid out in literally dozens of statutes.
The problem with the forfeiture law is that it doesn’t describe the procedure for the court hearings and how they are scheduled, and most importantly, whether and when the person whose property is being seized must be notified that they have a right to a jury trial. Without these key details, the law places a great deal of power in the hands of those who are seeking to take the property, the DA’s office and police.
There are reports that the initial notice is insufficient, and that multiple hearings are scheduled in a given case. These problems disproportionately affect the poor and immigrants. For example, using the example above, the parent is a poor immigrant who doesn’t speak English well. With multiple hearing dates, the odds of missing a hearing are good. If the parent misses a hearing, the forfeiture action may be decided against them, and they may lose the home.
Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer
David S. Nenner is a criminal lawyer with over 2 decades of experience handling all criminal matters, including drug/gun cases, murder/homicide cases, appeals/PCRA and civil forfeitures. Please call for a free case review. (215) 564-0644
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