Court: State Not Justified In Seizing Grandmother's House After Her Son Sold $140 Of Marijuana

from the well,-obviously,-although-it-takes-73-pages-to-get-there dept

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.

Citing Justice Clarence Thomas’ recent comments in a forfeiture case in front of the Supreme Court, the court actually calls the idea of “guilty property” a false assertion — at least not without significant narrowing of that definition.

Based upon the rich history of in rem forfeiture both in England and our country, and the clear demarcation between criminal in personam proceedings and those brought civilly in rem, as well as more recent pronouncements by the United States Supreme Court, it is evident to us that the “guilty property” fiction which serves as the basis for civil in rem forfeiture logically demands that the property sought to be forfeited be an instrumentality of the offense.


In sum, an analysis of whether a civil in rem forfeiture violates the Eighth Amendment requires a threshold inquiry into whether the specific property sought to be forfeited is an instrumentality of the underlying offense. If the property sought to be forfeited is an instrumentality of the underlying offense, the inquiry continues to an examination of proportionality. If not, the forfeiture cannot withstand Eighth Amendment scrutiny and the inquiry ends.

Then the court gets down to dealing with the problems inherent to civil asset forfeiture, a process that allows law enforcement to enrich itself without having to secure criminal convictions.

The potential harshness of a forfeiture against a property owner with no alleged criminal conduct, or minor culpability, however, must be recognized in any excessiveness inquiry, and we find doing so comfortably fits within the United States Supreme Court’s gross disproportionality test. Therefore, we must be wary of forfeiture imposing greater punishment than appropriate for the underlying crime itself. Indeed, a civil in rem proceeding can be viewed in one way as a “super criminal” proceeding, in which a property owner is punished through the seizure of his or her property, but without all the safeguards associated with criminal proceedings. While Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections are applicable to civil forfeiture proceedings, there is no right to counsel for individuals subjected to forfeiture proceedings.

In balancing personal property rights and the deterrent effect of forfeiture, the court says law enforcement must apply the law with restraint and the judicial system must act more rigorously when handling these cases. The loss of a home is a life-changing event for those on the end of a forfeiture claim.

In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, the home is an especially significant type of property. The loss of one’s home, regardless of its monetary value, not only impacts the owner, but may impact other family members, and one’s livelihood. Indeed, the home is where one expects the greatest freedom from governmental intrusion; it not only occupies a special place in our law, but the most exacting process is demanded before the government may seize it.

It goes on to point out the trial court failed to examine this as thoroughly as it should have, especially given the impact it would have on the elderly owner — and it gave far too much credence to the government’s arguments.

As noted by the Commonwealth [appeals court], various parts of the record were not considered, or at least addressed, by the trial court. Specifically, the court did not address Appellee’s past dealings with her son when she discovered drug usage; her contention that she did not see any drugs in her home or van; her explanation that she only allowed her son to return home due to her belief that he had stopped using illegal drugs; her assertions that, if she had found drugs in her home, she would have evicted her son; that no neighbors or the block captain reported knowledge of drug dealing from the home or problems with Appellee’s son; that she requested from police some proof that her son was selling drugs, but that no proof was ever proffered; and the failure of the police to arrest her son after executing a search warrant on the home in November 2009. All of these circumstances should have been accounted for and considered by the trial court in rendering its decision. Furthermore, the prospect of evicting Appellee’s son needed to be contemplated in the context of an elderly widow with serious health challenges who relied upon her son for living assistance. The trial court should have considered what was reasonable under these circumstances.

This isn’t a reform effort or a drastic rereading of the state’s forfeiture statutes. It’s a warning from the state’s highest courts that lower courts are no longer welcome to turn in cursory reviews of forfeiture claims. As it points out in a footnote, it’s not setting new precedent: it’s just letting everyone know the law will be interpreted far more precisely than it has been.

In requiring such review, we are not upsetting the statutory burdens of proof found in the Forfeiture Act as asserted by the Commonwealth. Rather, we are mandating compliance with that statute and our case law, and ensuring that innocent property owners are not dispossessed of what may be essential possessions — even though not convicted of or even charged with a crime — without rigorous scrutiny by the courts.

This is the way it always should have been. It’s just taken until 2017 to hit critical mass in the Pennsylvania court system.

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Comments on “Court: State Not Justified In Seizing Grandmother's House After Her Son Sold $140 Of Marijuana”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And yet you posted here. I’ve had some comments held for moderation. All of them had very strong language and most were written when I felt anger. What about you?

And if you really support the travesty of law enforcement destroying the life of old people because someone sold minor amounts of drugs in their homes without their knowledge then you are a truly despicable person. Oh wait, I’ve said you are despicable before in other discussions where you showed blatant disdain for basic Human Rights. Never mind.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I wouldn’t of given a crap if the grandma actually sold the drugs and made the whole $140. Who the F cares. Fine her $140. That’s the most I’m willing to go for a punishment.

These completely DUMB laws where the thug Police can steal your house and cars over hardly anything. Even if you’re not even charged with a crime, or found not guilty is what’s criminal.

We need to just end the whole drug war and put most of the police out of business. Those left should worry about real crimes.

Somehow Abortion is OK because what you do to your own body is up to you, even though I think it’s murder, but doing drugs, when is to your own body is wrong? Even though Alcohol which is worse is legal? Doesn’t make any sense. When Alcohol was Illegal, it didn’t stop people from drinking, inducing the people who created these laws and enforced the laws. What it did do is create a lot of crime. Big criminal Alcohol cartels. Just like with drugs. Make drugs legal, that all goes away. No selling drugs on the corner.

It really all needs to end, The war on drugs will NEVER be won. It does far, far more harm then good. Just look at the Police trying to throw a grandma out onto the streets over $140 in drug sales she had nothing to even do with. That is what’s criminal!!! The people who thought that was ok should be thrown into jail themselves and right out of their houses. See how they like it. No crime? Doesn’t matter, it’s no different.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What’s so detestable about Tim’s speech and how does it demonstrate hatred of authority in this article? The entire post is an analysis of a court case establishing limits on civil asset forfeiture. If he blindly hates authority as you assert then why would he focus on a decision by the PA Supreme Court, which would be the ultimate authority for the entire state. Instead, shouldn’t he be pontificating on the woeful state of forfeiture without relying on any authority other than his own arguments?

As a Pennsylvanian, I, for one, am relieved to read about some limits being placed on asset forfeiture. The police in this case didn’t even arrest the homeowner’s son. If they don’t consider him to be guilty of a crime how can they seize the house while still complying with the 5th and 14th amendments? Due process is a constitutional requirement and the US Constitution is the supreme law of the land. As such it would be the highest authority, so it seems to me like you’re the one who has an issue with authority.

williamsmmsoe (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Don’t construe this as disagreeing with you. I detest asset forfeiture as it currently exists:

Due process doesn’t really apply to civil cases, and these forfeitures are run under the civil banner, unless it’s beneficial to call it criminal, then it’s schroedinger’s case of sorts.

Half of this mess could be resolved by not permitting these to be civil proceedings in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I know it doesn’t apply in civil cases; however, that’s what makes seizing of property in a civil proceeding unconstitutional. The 5th Amendment states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. The seizure of property without due process of law is unconstitutional on its face. I know the legal and logical gymnastics the courts and justice system have tried to undertake the pretend it isn’t, but they’re really just being corrupt and self-interested.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

psychology… the more we have and use tools to bludgeon others with, the more we will want them and use them.

what happens to people when they get used to that?

And people wonder why civility in online interactions are only getting worse.

I would rather hear my enemy and response why I do not like. attempts to silence them makes them escalate. Despite many people around here disliking how cops act around danger you all exhibit the exact same behaviors.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It is important to understand the crowds in which you are a part of.

If your solution is to silence what you don’t like under the guise of “It’s because it’s idiotic, trollish drivel that adds nothing to the conversation.” then you really have nothing to say when someone decides your post or comment is of the same merit.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yes, exactly.

If I ever start writing constant insipid, repetitive, off-topic posts that disgust the community as thoroughly as Whatever’s do, then go ahead and flag away. Not only would I deserve it under those circumstances, but by posting here I am consenting to the social contract that defines those community standards.

And if I didn’t like it, I could leave.

Hint. Fucking. Hint.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

don’t worry, someone might think you deserve more than just a flagging next time.

If it is okay to slight another for a small thing then what about a large thing? What if something is small for one, but large for another?

It does not end and never will. All that we are left with is, your ideal vs my ideals, proving that cultures cannot exist peacefully.

tom (profile) says:

Re: Re:

We do tend to be a laid back folk about a lot of things that don’t directly impact us personally. But when enough of us get pissed off about something, stuff happens. The problem is “Stuff happens”, often makes the situation worse. When the number of folks worried about drug use in the 70’s got large enough, we got the “War on Drugs.” One weapon in that war was civil forfeiture, which was at first targeted at billionaire drug lords living out of country. But govt officials figured out there was more money to be had targeting normal people in the US that couldn’t afford the best lawyers that billions in cash can hire.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And don’t forget the racist dogwhistles!

Nixon kicked off the drug war because he associated heroin with African-Americans and marijuana with the anti-war movement, and considered both groups to be threats to his presidency.

It didn’t stop with Nixon, of course; after that you had Reagan’s “young bucks” and “welfare queens”, Bush Sr’s Willie Horton ad, the Clintons’ “superpredators”, and so on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“Racist dog whistles”?

Aww, Thadwick, are you displaying your victimhood for all to see?

Tell us more, poor baby. Let it out. What the heck are you saying?

You have an insight into Nixon’s mind? And Reagan’s, and Bush’s, and …

You knew what they were all thinking and you hear secret messages from them, right, and old white people hear the messages too, right? That’s a “dog whistle”, right, a secret message sent by those big bad politicians? And these secret messages and secretly acknowledged by everyone who persecuted you, right, probably old white men?

“Dog Whistle” indeed. What spurious idiocy.

Go ahead and explain “dog whistle”, genius. Spell it out for us, mind reader.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

It’s a fairly well-known fact that a lot of anti-drug propaganda was racially motivated, from the “reefer madness” period up to the beginning of the war on drugs. There’s also plenty of evidence that, even if this was not the outright intention to begin with, minorities have tended to suffer disproportionately as a result of the laws passed.

Is that a good enough starting point for you, or do you need something spelled out in smaller words?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How

Well, they never “took” the property from you, they detained it because they believed that the property itself had been party to criminal activity. And since non-humans lack legal protections​ like jury of peers, etc, they can then find the property guilty and take possession of it. Of course, you can’t expect the state to build some kind of house jail so the property which has no rights, is sold (to the sherrif’s nephew or the like)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: How

They took property. Plain and simple. Asset forfeiture laws are specifically unconstitutional and exactly what the 4th & 5th were specifically designed to prohibit the government from doing.

But hey, everyone here hates the Constitution anyways so who the fuck cares?

I have yet to meet a single American citizen that actually genuinely cares for the document. Everyone has a Liberty they are willing to sacrifice in their crusades over their “political causes”. And when you are okay with destroying any amendment, then you approve of all of them being destroyed.

The constitution is an All or Nothing deal. It is foundationally, the most important component of our legal system and it is generally ignored by everyone!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How

Your ignorance is astounding.

What does the act of “Legally changing the Constitution” such as will the prohibition have to do with “Laws that contradict the Constitution” such as asset forfeiture?

These problems are VERY different. One followed due process and passes constitutional muster, the other was a usurpation of power and disregards foundational constitutional law.

Are you really not able to understand these very significant differences?

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 How

Your exact words were "And when you are okay with destroying any amendment, then you approve of all of them being destroyed."

I pointed out that we did, in fact, destroy an amendment once, and it did not result in any other amendments being destroyed, nor did support for the destruction of one amendment imply support for destruction of any others.

If you misspoke and I responded to the thing you actually said instead of the thing you secretly meant, I can understand how that’s frustrating. But there’s no need for name-calling.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 How

Changing the constitution legally is not destroying it. Passing laws that are unconstitutional and then supporting those laws destroys it. Not a hard concept but based on the postings around here, your level of intelligence appears to be par for for the course.

“If you misspoke and I responded to the thing you actually said instead of the thing you secretly meant, I can understand how that’s frustrating. But there’s no need for name-calling.”

If you desire to reproach others for their perceived offensive language perhaps you should first consider your own.

Please keep your straw men to yourself sir or ma’am! It is my opinion that you deserve every last vestige of evil visited upon you by the law since your intellectual corruption has been so well cultivated!

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 How

Changing the constitution legally is not destroying it.

I never said anything about destroying the Constitution. I referred to destroying an amendment to the Constitution. Legal or not, that amendment was destroyed.

If you desire to reproach others for their perceived offensive language perhaps you should first consider your own.

Please keep your straw men to yourself sir or ma’am!

Wow, did you just accuse me of using a strawman one sentence after using a strawman yourself? You’ve got chutzpah, I’ll give you that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: How

Who are you accusing of hating the Constitution? Certainly not people that believe government workers should follow the document. You need to explain how a police officers confiscate phones without authority. Police officers unlawfuly access databases. They detain citizens based on fabricated laws. These are just some examples, but Techdirt hates the Constitution. Right.

ECA (profile) says:


$40 purchase..
$140 in sales..
What was the FINE??

Previous article..

“A City Paper review of 100 cases from 2011 and 2012 found the median amount of cash seized by the District Attorney was only $178.”

“Philadelphia hauls in about $6 million a year from asset forfeiture, a program ostensibly aimed at curbing drug trafficking. Ciaramella points out that this total is greater than Brooklyn and Los Angeles combined.”

“Despite the dismissals of cases against Sourovelis’s and Welch’s homes (and I’m pointing this out again to highlight the ridiculousness of asset forfeitrue), the district attorney is still claiming both a victory and prime, beachfront real estate on the Moral High Ground. “

So, they Jail you, Dismiss the charges, and THEN take your house?? and YOU WERE NEVER FOUND GUILTY???
Even IF’ you were guilty, its NOT a fair Exchange of value…or to PAY the charges leveled against you..

States taking advantage of Laws created to EQUALIZE the damage done?? Sales received??

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