Grandmother Who Lost Her Home Because Her Son Sold Marijuana Wins Pennsylvania Supreme Court Case
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Nick Sibilla, Contributor May 30, 2017
Without ever being charged with a crime, a West Philadelphia grandmother had her home and her car confiscated because her son sold less than $200 worth of marijuana. Elizabeth Young, now 72, is just one of thousands of victims of civil forfeiture, which allows police and prosecutors to confiscate property, even if the owner has not been convicted or accused of any wrongdoing.
But on Thursday, more than seven years after her legal nightmare began, Young scored a major victory at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a meticulous and unanimous decision, the court rejected the government’s confiscation, and issued more stringent safeguards for property owners. Writing for the court, Justice Debra Todd held that this ruling would ensure that “innocent property owners are not dispossessed of what may be essential possessions…without rigorous scrutiny by the courts.”
Property owners desperately needed greater protections, especially in Philadelphia, where law enforcement has confiscated over 1,000 homes, more than 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash over 11 years. Thanks in part to a separate, class action-lawsuit by the Institute for Justice (which also filed an amicus brief for Young’s case), Philadelphia’s “forfeiture machine” has become notorious nationwide for its abuses, and has even been showcased on CNN and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Young’s case began in 2009 after she allowed her adult son, Donald Graham, and his children to live with her, but only after Graham claimed he no longer used drugs. Previously, when Young learned Graham was using, she refused to speak to him and shunned her son entirely. With her son back in her life, Young relied on Graham for assistance, who drove his mother to church, to run errands and to meet appointments. (Young has been hospitalized for two blood clots in her lungs.)
But unbeknownst to Young, Graham was a small-time dealer. Beginning in November 2009, Philadelphia police conducted seven controlled buys with confidential informants against Graham. That effective use of taxpayer’s money netted just 19 grams of marijuana, with an estimated street value of around $190.
In January 2010, police arrested Graham, who later pled guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. Graham was sentenced to 11 to 23 months of house arrest, and faced no fine. But the even bigger penalty was to come.
Prosecutors filed petitions to forfeit Young’s car, a 1997 Chevrolet Venture minivan, and her home, where she had lived since the 1970s. Incredibly, Young was never charged with a crime. Instead, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania argued that her house and car must be confiscated because they “facilitated” Graham’s drug sales, which happened inside or around the minivan and house.
Young argued that she was an “innocent owner” under Pennsylvania law, because she did not know of or consent to her son’s illegal activity. She also claimed that the forfeiture was an unconstitutional “excessive fine” because she would lose her car and $54,000 house over a crime for which her son paid no fine.
Unfortunately for her, a Philadelphia trial court rejected both of her claims in May 2012, and ordered her to forfeit her residence and primary mode of transportation. The trial court claimed Young had turned “a blind eye to her son’s illegal conduct on the property”—despite evidence to the contrary—and reasoned that the forfeiture was “not grossly disproportional” because Graham could have theoretically faced $80,000 in criminal penalties, even though he wasn’t actually fined.
On appeal, a divided Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of Young in December 2014, prompting an appeal by prosecutors, before her case reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court’s decision primarily involved the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines,” with Justice Todd clarifying the standard for determining when forfeitures would be unconstitutional.
First, the property must be “an instrumentality of the criminal conduct” to be forfeited. That designation depends on a variety of factors, including if the property was used deliberately and repeatedly, and not incidentally, and was “integral to the commission of the offense.”
Second, even if a property were an instrumentality, the forfeiture may still be unconstitutional if “the value of the property sought to be forfeited is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the underlying offense.”
For this prong, the court relied on a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In United States v. Bajakajian, the Court 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.
Although Bajakajian involved criminal forfeiture, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that in civil forfeiture cases, “the owner of the property and the offender may not be the same” and so “we must be wary of forfeiture imposing greater punishment than appropriate for the underlying crime itself.” The court even compared civil forfeiture to a “‘super criminal’ proceeding…without all the safeguards associated with criminal proceedings,” since property owners do not have a right to court-appointed counsel and lack the presumption of innocence.
In other words, courts must evaluate “the potential harshness of a forfeiture against a property owner with no alleged criminal conduct, or minor culpability,” when it comes to claims involving excessive fines.
An owner’s knowledge and culpability, along with the “actual penalty imposed upon the criminal offender” and specific instances of harm, are also key to determine “the gravity of the offense” for this gross disproportionality test. “Even a property owner, while not wholly without knowledge or granting consent,” Justice Todd noted, “may lack full knowledge of criminal activity, or may bear only nominal or token blame for the illegal conduct serving as the foundation for the forfeiture.”
As for determining the value of a seized property, this may extend beyond “simple market value” and include “a subjective non-pecuniary evaluation.” For instance, judges need to consider “whether the forfeiture would deprive the property owner of his or her livelihood, i.e., his current or ‘future ability to earn a living.’” Ever since Magna Carta, many English and later American jurists wanted to spare defendants from “such onerous fines that would deprive one of his or her means of living.” This factor would be particularly helpful to owners in vehicle forfeiture cases, since in this car-centered country, owning a car is crucial for many people to get to work and keep their jobs.
In addition, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that forfeiture cases involving family residences deserve “rigorous consideration.” As Justice Todd explained, “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.”
Moreover, the court addressed the state’s innocent-owner defense. In Pennsylvania, along with more than 30 other states, property owners, and not the government, must bear the burden of proof. Flipping the presumption of innocence straight on its head, owners must prove they did not know or consent to their property being used in connection with criminal activity.
Acknowledging that owners are tasked with a “virtually impossible” burden, Justice Todd ruled that for innocent-owner claims, courts “must recognize the difficult burden on a property owner to establish a negative—that he or she had no knowledge or gave no consent.”
After this “exacting review” of civil forfeiture, Justice Todd remanded the case, but not before rebuking the trial court:
…the court did not address [Young’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 [Young’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 [Young’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.
With a more robust standard in place, property owners throughout Pennsylvania will be better protected against the grasping hand of the government. Young, for one, is “glad” her case is finally coming to a close. “I never did anything wrong and I have been out of my house long enough,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“This is one of the most important civil forfeiture decisions issued by a court and the most important ever issued in Pennsylvania,” said Jason Leckerman, a Partner at Ballard Spahr, which handled the case. “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.”
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