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Pa. Supreme Court makes it harder for the D.A. to seize your home

Courts must take care to protect the constitutional rights of persons subject to forfeiture actions, since many are poor and without legal representation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in a unanimous opinion.

In a decision that strengthens the hands of homeowners swept up in civil forfeiture actions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that authorities must have strong evidence showing a home or car was used in a crime and that the owner consented to the illegal activity before they move to seize the property.

In a unanimous, 73-page opinion, the court found that although authorities have the right to seize property used in illegal enterprises, they must prove that the owner not only was aware of the illegal activity but also had agreed to it. The court also found that property seizures may breach the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines if the seizure is "grossly disproportional" to the underlying offense.

"The amount of forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish," Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd wrote.

The ruling, issued late Thursday, came in the case of Elizabeth Young, a 72-year-old grandmother from the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia, whose house and minivan were seized by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office in 2013 after her son was arrested for selling small amounts of marijuana there.

Young contested the seizure, but Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick ruled in favor of the DA's Office, finding that Young had ample knowledge of her son's activities because the police had searched the house and seized drug paraphernalia, but the drug dealing continued.

"I am glad that this has come to some kind of conclusion," said Young, who has been out of the house since 2013 and is currently living in Yeadon. "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."

The District Attorney's Office, noting that the Supreme Court decision leaves undisturbed the right of law enforcement to seize property implicated in illegal drug sales, said in a statement that it will litigate future property-seizure cases in line with the ruling.

"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified the law regarding both whether a civil forfeiture equates to an excessive fine and what factors should be considered when a litigant argues that he or she is an innocent owner of a property that was used for illegal activity," the DA's Office said. "The Philadelphia DAO is reviewing the decision and will address all future cases as outlined by the court."

The Supreme Court decision upheld a December 2014 opinion by Commonwealth Court, a mid-level appeals court in Pennsylvania, overturning the seizure. The Supreme Court sent the matter back to the trial court for further review, which means there is no timetable for when Young will be able to return to her house. A team of lawyers at Center City's Ballard Spahr represented Young pro bono.

"It is a mandate for the government and to law enforcement and a victory for civil liberties," said Ballard partner Jessica Anthony, who argued the case before the Supreme Court.

Civil forfeiture is a practice long used by law enforcement to crack down on drug dealers not only by throwing them in jail but also taking their property. And it has generated heated opposition in Philadelphia and in jurisdictions around the country with seemingly innocent people getting swept up in the net. Because it is a civil proceeding, it can be used against homeowners such as Young, who haven't been convicted or even charged with a crime, but who are deemed by authorities to have indirectly participated in the criminal activity.

To prevail, prosecutors had to merely show that it was more likely than not that the homeowner was aware of or consented to the activity, a standard well below that of criminal trials.

The problem with that standard, the Supreme Court said, is that most of the people caught up in civil forfeiture proceedings are poor and typically appear without a lawyer because there is no right to counsel in civil proceedings. Although civil forfeitures can be an effective tool in fighting crime, the unique vulnerability of people subject to seizure actions requires that such trials be conducted with extra care, the court said.

In Young's case, even though the police had searched her house, and seized what they said were drugs and drug paraphernalia, she was under no obligation to believe them, the Supreme Court said. Moreover, she had been ill during the time that the police had targeted her son and thus was less able to judge his activity. Even if authorities could show that Young was aware of her son's drug dealing, they must also prove that she consented to it, the court said.

The court cited both state and federal case law in setting new guidelines for civil forfeiture in Pennsylvania, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court had earlier ruled that such seizures, to withstand judicial scrutiny, must be in proportion to the underlying offense. In Young's case, her son eventually was arrested for selling $140 worth of marijuana.