HARRISBURG – A Commonwealth Court ruling is being hailed as a victory for property rights and a small blow against civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow the state to seize private property that may be connected to a crime.
In a decision filed last month, Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini called the state’s civil asset forfeiture law “state-sanctioned theft” and ordered a lower court to re-examine a recent forfeiture case in Centre County. Though the state is expected to appeal the ruling, Pellegrini’s decision may set a new precedent for these types of cases, making it more difficult for the state to seize private property believed to have been used in a crime and guaranteeing defendants the chance to be heard in court before property is taken.
“It’s a win for property owners. It’s a win for property rights in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Steven Passarello, the Blair County attorney who argued the case before the state court.
The underlying court case dealt with the forfeiture of a gas station owned by Gregory Palazzari, which he bought in September 2002, according to court documents.
The station was known as Greg’s Sunoco at 605 University Drive in State College.
In 2009, Palazzari was arrested on charges of trafficking in drugs. The state moved to seize the gas station because it thought Palazzari was using the facility to store and deal drugs, according to court documents.
Palazzari was later found guilty and is serving five to 10 years in prison, but Passarello entered the case and contested the seizure of the gas station.
According to court documents, Passarello argued there should have been a hearing on forfeiture of the gas station, because its value was disproportional to the crimes charged. In other words, the gas station is worth substantially more than value of the drugs sold on the premises, and the state should not be allowed to seize its full value.
Pennsylvania civil forfeiture laws allow the state to ask a judge for a summary judgment, which essentially means the judge can rule without a hearing on the merits of the case.
But when that ruling was appealed to the Commonwealth Court, a plurality of the court overturned the lower ruling.
In the majority opinion, Pellegrini wrote that forfeiture cases in Pennsylvania should be viewed as “quasi-criminal” instead of civil, so hearings and possibly even jury trials would be required before the government can seize property.
“Because a forfeiture proceeding is quasi-criminal punitive proceeding, the General Assembly mandated a hearing requiring the Commonwealth to present evidence in open court, much like it has to do in a criminal proceeding where similar constitutional principles are implicated and not just do it on the papers,” the judge wrote.
This ruling could set a new precedent in Pennsylvania, requiring the state to have a hearing before a judge in all asset forfeiture cases. That means the accused defendant or convict would have a chance to be heard by a judge before the state could seize any property.
“It allows them to take people’s property without due process and hearings,” said Passarello. “At least this ruling gives you the opportunity to be heard.”
Passarello said he expects the state to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. The state attorney general’s office did not return calls for comment on the case or to talk about its plans regarding appeal.