Grandmother’s House Seized After Son Sold $140 Of Marijuana, ‘Not Justified’ Says Court

Pennsylvania has some of the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the country. At the top of list of perverse incentives? 100% of proceeds go to the agency that seized the property. As a result, all sorts of abusive forfeitures occur. In one case, law enforcement seized a couple’s house because of a single $40 drug sale by their son.

Legislators in Pennsylvania haven’t made much of dent with their reform efforts. Attempts have been made but every bill presented has been gutted by law enforcement lobbyists before passage. Nothing has made its way to the governor’s desk yet, which is just as well because the disemboweled bills are reform-in-name-only.

The courts could play a part in curtailing forfeiture abuse but the system is stacked against property owners. In forfeiture cases, they’re not even invited to the judicial party. The state files a suit against the property, rather than the owners, and proceeds from there. Far too many courts in this nation have punted on issues like this, kicking them back to legislators to fix the problems. And far too many legislators haven’t had the strength to stand up against powerful law enforcement lobbyists.

Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is raising the bar just a bit for local law enforcement. Granted, the bar was already laying on the ground when it grabbed it, but some upward movement of any form is appreciated. C.J. Ciaramella of Reason reports:

Four years after the Philadelphia District Attorney seized her house without ever charging her with a crime, a 72-year-old grandmother has prevailed at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where justices strengthened protections for property owners against civil asset forfeiture.

In a unanimous opinion issued last Thursday, the Supreme Court tightened the rules for seizing property, ruling that, although police and prosecutors have the authority to take property used in illegal activities, there must be clear evidence that the property owner knew of and agreed to the crimes.

The opinion [PDF] does an incredibly deep dive into the background of the case, as well as the amount of evidence (hardly any) the state must provide to take property away from people who haven’t been charged with crimes. The attenuation in this case was minimal: a few controlled marijuana buys ($140 total) from a 72-year-old grandmother’s tenant: her 50-year-old son.

The court’s decision relies partly on something only slightly related to the act of civil asset forfeiture: excessive fines. Weighing the value of the house seized against the criminal act, the court finds the punishment does not fit the crime, at least in terms of American dollars.

In Pennsylvania, the gross disproportionality test is applicable to all punitive forfeitures, including civil in rem proceedings. In this regard, the following three, non-exhaustive, factors have been considered: the penalties that the legislature has authorized compared to those to which the defendant was subjected; whether the violation was isolated or part of a pattern of misbehavior; and the nature of the harm caused by the defendant.

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