Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck a major blow against forfeiture last week when justices ruled unanimously that it was illegal for Philadelphia authorities to seize Elizabeth Young’s house because someone in her home – her son — had less than an ounce of marijuana.
“This is one of the most important civil forfeiture decisions issued by a court and the most important ever issued in Pennsylvania,” said attorney Jason Leckerman. “The court has set forth a comprehensive constitutional framework for analyzing forfeiture claims that should substantially curb forfeiture proceedings in Pennsylvania and is likely to influence other state courts considering these issues.”
The court found that the seizure of the grandmother’s house and car because of $190 worth of marijuana was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines, Institute for Justice attorney Nick Sabilla wrote in a Forbes article. The marijuana was sold by her adult son, Donald Graham.
Graham was sentenced to just 23 months of house arrest and never fined, but the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office decided to seize his 72-year-old mother’s house and minivan. Young’s attorneys sued, claiming the seizure of the $54,000 home was grossly disproportionate.
“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.”
Victory for Property Rights
Civil forfeiture takes place in civil court, where the defendant has a lower probability of winning such a case. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may have changed that in Commonwealth v. Young by ruling that courts and prosecutors must follow U.S. Supreme Court precedence. The U.S. Supreme Court had earlier ruled that it “‘would be grossly disproportional to the offense’ to force a man to forfeit $357,144 when he pled guilty to a crime that triggered a maximum $5,000 fine,” Forbes reported.
The case only applies in Pennsylvania, but other courts might borrow from its logic, Sabilla wrote.
“I am glad that this has come to some kind of conclusion,” Young told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am glad that I will be here to see this thing cleared up. I never did anything wrong and I have been out of my house long enough.”
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