There have been many Philadelphia property owners who fell victims to Pennsylvania’s Civil Forfeiture Act. According to data collected by the Institute for Justice, Philadelphia law enforcement has confiscated over 1,000 homes, more than 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash over 11 years.*
Many victims of civil forfeiture have never been arrested or convicted of a crime such as drug possession or possession with intent to deliver drugs. The law allows law enforcement to seize a property if it is found to facilitate a crime, even when the evidence proving the crime is questionable.
In addition, many forfeitures are disproportionate to the crime. The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution limits the government’s power to punish citizens, which provides, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
However, many Philadelphia property owners have had excessive fines imposed due to less serious crimes. This is what happened to Elizabeth Young, a 71 year old grandmother in West Philadelphia in a landmark civil forfeiture case.
Facts Surrounding the Case
Young’s case began in 2009 after her home and car were taken by Philadelphia law enforcement. At the time, Young’s adult son, Donald Graham and his children were living with her. Prior to that, Young had no contact with her son or had any interaction with him because he was using drugs. Young only allowed her son to move in after she believed that her son was no longer using drugs.
Unbeknownst to Young, Graham was selling drugs. In 2009, the Philadelphia police set up several controlled buys with confidential informants against Graham. The controlled buys yielded 19 grams of marijuana with a street value totaling $190.
At trial court in Philadelphia, the prosecution argued that Young knew that her son was selling drugs. Thus, her property was forfeited under the Forfeiture Act. Young argued that she neither knew nor consented to her son selling drugs. Further, Young argued that the forfeiture of her home imposed an excessive fine for a simple criminal offense, i.e., her son’s 4 sales of small amounts of marijuana worth $190. Nevertheless, the trial court granted the prosecution’s petition for the forfeiture of her home and car.
Young appealed the decision, and in 2014, the appeals court reversed the lower court’s finding, and provided a new standard that the prosecution must meet in civil forfeiture cases.
The court held that the forfeiture of Young’s home imposed an excessive fine and violated Young’s Eighth Amendment right. The court held that “property owner’s culpability must be considered before it can be determined that the forfeiture of that property punishes the owner within the limits of the Eighth Amendment.”
Young had no involvement in the drug sales. The court further stated, “where the perpetrator of the offense is not the property owner, the property owner’s culpability must be evaluated by his own knowledge and actions, not the knowledge and actions of the wrongdoer. There must be some evidence that the owner participated in the offense to a degree sufficient to justify the amount of the Commonwealth’s proposed forfeiture.”
The court also addressed the issue of when property owners are subject to forfeiture, and what the prosecution must prove. This will be discussed in a later article.
The prosecution appealed the decision, and the PA Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision in May of 2017.
Criminal Drug Lawyer in Philadelphia
If you or a loved one is facing forfeiture of property after a drug case in Philadelphia, please call David Nenner for a FREE consultation. Mr. Nenner is an accomplished criminal defense lawyer with extensive trial experience. (215) 564-0644
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