In a potentially precedent-setting decision, a Pennsylvania appellate court has restricted the circumstances under which prosecutors can seize homes used by convicted drug dealers.
The 5-2 majority opinion by Commonwealth Court applies to homeowners who can show they had little or no involvement in the illegal activity. The ruling in the case involving a 69-year-old West Philadelphia widow, and the settlement of two seizure cases in a federal lawsuit Dec. 20, constitute twin setbacks for the city's civil forfeiture program.
The Commonwealth Court decision would establish sweeping new rules of evidence the city must meet if it is to prevail in some seizure cases. Those are cases involving parents or others who own homes used by drug dealers without the owners' knowledge or consent.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has 30 days from the time of the Dec. 17 decision to appeal. The office did not respond to calls for comment on Monday.
Seizures of properties by law enforcement have caused an outcry across the country because such civil forfeitures can move forward even if the homeowner has not been criminally convicted.
"My sense overall is that this decision will ensure a more rigorous constitutional analysis," said Jessica Anthony, who led the team of pro bono lawyers at Ballard Spahr that filed the appeal and argued the case.
Anthony represented Elizabeth Young, a retired Amtrak employee whose home was ordered seized in 2012 after a Common Pleas Court trial in Philadelphia. The District Attorney's Office had instituted civil forfeiture proceedings against Young following the arrest of her son, Donald Graham, for dealing small amounts of marijuana there. According to the appeals court, the value of the marijuana Graham sold to undercover agents totaled no more than $190.
Anthony appealed, asserting that Young's Eighth Amendment protections against excessive fines had been breached.
In its 56-page majority opinion, Commonwealth Court said the lower-court judge, Paula Patrick, erred by failing to properly consider whether the house was instrumental in Graham's drug dealing.
The ruling pointed out that the police had directed informants on multiple occasions to go to the house to purchase drugs, but that it was never established at trial whether the bulk of the activity was occurring there.
The appeals court, noting that a neighbor had testified that the house was not known as a locus of drug dealing, said law enforcement cannot rely on general claims of the harmfulness of drug dealing to society. In such proceedings, they must show that there are impacts within the immediate vicinity.
In addition, the court said, authorities must show a forfeiture penalty bears some relationship to the seriousness of the offense. The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.
On Dec. 20, the city announced that it had halted efforts to seize the homes of two plaintiffs in a widely publicized federal suit challenging the city's use of civil forfeiture laws in drug cases.
In agreements of dismissal filed in Common Pleas Court, the District Attorney's Office agreed to drop its cases against properties owned by Christos Sourovelis and Doila Welch as long as both owners took "reasonable measures" to ensure no further drug crimes occurred there.