Civil Asset Forfeiture

Court to Grandma: You Shouldn't Lose Your House Just Because Your Dumb Son Sold Some Weed There

A 72-year-old grandma's house was seized by police over $140 of pot. Not so fast, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court says.


Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Sipa/Newscom

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 Philadelphia 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.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property suspected of being connected to a crime, even if the owner is never convicted and charged. This extends to situations where the property owner is not even involved in the alleged crime, such as a mother whose son catches a DUI while driving her car, or, in the case at hand, a grandmother whose son is arrested for selling $140-worth of marijuana to an undercover cop.

The court also said that "grossly disproportional" seizures may violate the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines. "The amount of forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish," the court wrote.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on more details of the case:

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 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.

Young is far from the only person to have her house seized by the Philadelphia D.A. for a minor drug crime that she didn't even commit. In 2013, Philadelphia police seized the house of Christos and Markela Sourovelis after their son was arrested for selling $40-worth of drugs outside of it.

The Sourovelis' sued, with assistance from the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states. The Sourovelis' plight drew national media attention, and the Philadelphia D.A. eventually dropped the case. However, the city is still facing a class-action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice challenging its asset forfeiture program. According to the firm, Philadelphia has seized more than 1,000 homes, 3,000 vehicles and $44 million in cash over 11 years.

Between the new legal standard issued by the Supreme Court, the looming lawsuit, and a potential reformer leading the district attorney's office—Democratic Philadelphia D.A. candidate Larry Krasner vowed to rein in the program in an interview with Reason earlier this year—the salad days of Philadelphia's asset forfeiture machine may be ending.

The Philadelphia police officer who coordinated the undercover marijuana buys at Young's house pled guilty and was sentenced in 2015 to three-and-a-half years in federal prison on corruption charges involving planting drug evidence on suspects.