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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/NewscomBastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Sipa/NewscomFour 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.

Photo Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Sipa/Newscom

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  • B.P.||

    "Sorry about that, here's your house back. Oh, and we forgot to maintain it over the past four years. Whoops! And no, we're not going to cover the four years of rent you paid while you were out of a home."

    No, I didn't read the article.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Funny that my best connections for high-quality drugs were friends in the Philly Police Department.

  • sasob||

    What makes you think those motherfuckers ever say they're sorry about anything?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now, if she could only get her house moved far from that wretched city.

  • Rich||

    "The amount of forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish," the court wrote.

    "Ah, but it does," Jeff Sessions will probably write.

  • Vladilyich||

    You beat me to the logical conclusion!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    What is this sensation on my nuts? Is this... is this the opposite of a punch? Maybe more of a gentle cupping?

  • Juice||

    They should have shot grandma in the leg. Then they'd be able to take the house.

  • Anomalous||

    Every Philly prosecutor has a sad.

  • SQRLSY One||

    To hell with having your house confiscated by Government Almighty; How about having your BODY confiscated by Government Almighty ?!?!
    I was busted for the crime of blowing on a "lung flute" without a physician's permission… To learn about the "lung flute" (a cheap, simple plastic flute), see www.churchofSQRLS.com … And use "lung flute" as search string.
    My body has now been possessed by Government Almighty… Sometimes I find my neck swiveling 360 and then 720 and more, and I spit up pea-green-and-gray, split-pea soup. Profusely, projectile vomiting and all… And then my body is FORCED to sing the praises of Government Almighty!!!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    What?

  • SQRLSY One||

    I am now being forced to sing these praises...

    Scienfoology Song… GAWD = Government Almighty's Wrath Delivers

    Government loves me, This I know,
    For the Government tells me so,
    Little ones to GAWD belong,
    We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
    Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
    Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
    And gives me all that I might need!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

    DEA, CIA, KGB,
    Our protectors, they will be,
    FBI, TSA, and FDA,
    With us, astride us, in every way!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
    My Nannies tell me so!

  • Hank Phillips||

    We need a wet-mop exorcist on aisle 6.

  • Anomalous||

    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.

    A federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison?

  • No Yards Penalty||

    Let's hope so.
    Office Space reference FTW.

  • Eman||

    Of course i think it shouldnt be illegal, but $140 of pot is kind of a big deal. That's like an entire quarter ounce! This is why people don't take libertarians seriously.

  • Jacks61||

    Asset Forfeiture has been twisted into this budget/cash flow tool. It MUST be abolished and re-written. Or simply use it for what it was intended for.

    I especially loved the end of this story: 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.

    ^ GREAT work ethic going on right there.

  • Robbzilla||

    It's a simple fix. Make civil asset forfeiture illegal. Require a conviction of the property owner before criminal asset forfeiture. Make a law that immediately returns property, with interest (Whatever the current rate it, Amortized daily) to the person acquitted. If the judge finds the people who took the property to be in the wrong (unlawful arrest), then they're on the hook to pay that interest out of their own pocket. That's the prosecutor, the arresting officers, and their boss, on up to the chief of police.

    Finally, take the wrongful arrest decision out of the hands of the judge and put it in the hands of the jury.

  • Longtobefree||

    "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. "

    What an abuse of the English language. There is absolutely nothing civil about that confiscation at all. And there is no relationship between the criminal charge against the son and any civil action against the grandmother.

    Do we need a constitutional amendment to say the fourth and fifth amendments mean what they say?

  • pan fried wylie||

    Do we need a constitutional amendment to say the fourth and fifth amendments mean what they say?

    28: GOTO 01

  • Robbzilla||

    Sadly, too many people won't remember BASIC. Good one!

  • Hank Phillips||

    Sheriff Billy Bob sez: "Relationship? We don' need no stinkin' relationship! We gots Special Weapons and Tactics! Resist and we kill you and get off with a mock trial by careful jury selection and Solicitor quashing of indictments."

  • No Yards Penalty||

    And the pigs and lawyers wonder why people hate them.

  • crufus||

    Why be a cop if you don't get to rip-off grandmothers?

  • Robbzilla||

    Well, you still get to bang prostitutes before you convict them...

  • Simon Prophet||

    This is a step in the right direction for grandmothers of NASA employees who may be suspects. https://youtu.be/d634wEZPImI

  • Gene||

    Yep, we share our political spectrum with a great may dudes like old Simon here.

  • John Thacker||

    Good to see that the Institute for Justice is fighting this in Philly. They are my top individual charity, and I like to see them do good work.

  • Palatki||

    Would this mean (in Philly,e.g.) that if a person was busted selling drugs out of his apartment, the city would seize the apartment building? Wouldn't it follow that they would? Why haven't i ever heard of this happening?

  • gagster||

    "In a unanimous opinion issued last Thursday, the Philadelphia Supreme Court"

    Silly me. I didn't even know that cities had supreme courts.

  • frankania||

    What about the victims of these drug crimes......oh, wait, there are no victims.

  • tommhan||

    Just about everyone thinks asset forfeiture laws are wrong and believe that many police departments abuse these laws. If you can prove that drug proceeds paid for the house, cars, etc then that is one thing but to use asset forfeiture to steal property from others is just wrong and should not ever be legal..

  • Hank Phillips||

    Both the Dem and GOP platforms say to keep asset-forfeiture on the books--albeit with a heavy heart, more in sorrow than in anger, and solely to put the wrong people in their place--but keep them looters looting!

  • Hank Phillips||

    SEE? See how asset-forfeiture looting turns the pigs into felons and snowballs into billions of dollars in liabilities making mortgage-backed derivatives worthless? Then suddenly there's this huge sucking sound as people liquidate lest the looters confiscate, followed by a huge crashing sound. If some libertarian were to grasp this principle published in Atlas in 1957 (Ayn and Frank married in 1929 and watched the Hoover tax enforcement of prohibition crash the economy) and relay it to The Don, who apparently knows something of money... Maybe Sessions could be made Ambassador to Outer Mongolia or San Marino inside Italy--or inspector of Mines and Booby Traps...

  • ||

    The Don knows of this insanity & will soon cure it.

  • swampwiz||

    I would always lever up my house in any case, just in case something happens that could get me sued.

  • rageon||

    I don't think they should be allowed to seize property even if the owner knew the illegal activity was going on. The only case for seizing property should be if the property is clearly, and provably, the profit of the illegal activity. Which proof should be presented in criminal court and subject to the stricter standards of criminal evidence.

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