Elizabeth Young is now homeless and without a car because her son dealt small amounts of marijuana. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office seized the 69-year-old widow’s house and minivan through civil forfeiture even though she was never charged with a crime.
“Civil forfeiture punishes property owners for someone else’s wrongs,” Young’s attorney, Jessica Anthony, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “That means individuals can lose their homes because a family member, friend, or even a stranger has been accused of using, storing or selling drugs in their home, even if no one gets convicted for the crime. The loss of one’s home . . . is a harsh punishment.”
Young lost her home last year after police found a pound of marijuana in her dining room. Her son, Donald Graham, later pleaded guilty to possession and sale of marijuana. He was sentenced to 11 to 23 months of house arrest and wasn’t jailed.
Young is said to be active in her church.
Disagreement Over Young’s Innocence
“Although the claimant [Young] was not charged, she was not an innocent owner,” an appeals brief filed by the DA’s office in Young’s case stated. “The trial court found that she should have known about the illegal drug sales and tacitly consented to them.”
The office used the son’s actions as a pretext to initiate a civil forfeiture procedure against Young’s home. On April 3, 2013, Judge Paula Patrick approved the forfeiture and ordered Young to turn the home and her van over to the city.
The house, valued at $54,000, and a 1997 Chevrolet Venture minivan were the only valuable possessions Young had.
The city of Philadelphia seized 20 homes in 2013, The Inquirer reported. The city forced another eight homeowners to sell their property and split the proceeds with the city in a similar process.
Young says she is innocent.
War against the Poor and Property Owners
The seizures are part of a push to get drug dealers off the city streets by District Attorney Seth Williams. Some critics have charged that fundraising — and not the war on drugs — is the real motivation for the forfeitures.
“The fact is we are in tough financial times and forfeiture is raising millions,” University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Louis Rulli said. “What we see is the use of civil forfeiture against innocent individuals who own property.”
Most targets of forfeiture are low-income people who cannot afford a good legal defense, Rulli, a national expert on forfeiture, noted. Their only hope is to find a lawyer or firm that will take their case pro bono or free.
Anthony and another attorney at Ballard Spahr, a prominent Philadelphia law firm, have taken Young’s case pro bono. They contend that the forfeiture proceeding against Young was manifestly unfair.
Could Set Precedent
Since forfeiture is a civil procedure, the burden of establishing innocence was more on Young that it would have been in a criminal case, Anthony noted. Anthony also contends that the seizure violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines.
Young’s case is currently before the Commonwealth Court, Pennsylvania’s appeals court.
A ruling from that court may not end the matter, because the case can be appealed to both the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court. That means Young’s case could lead to an important precedent on the legality of civil forfeiture.
Until the courts rule, Young’s house is sitting empty because it cannot be sold. She is living with relatives.
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