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Pennsylvania Supreme Court imposes strict guidelines for seizure

A recent case has prompted changes in Pennsylvania law regarding civil asset forfeiture. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling clarified the guidelines for determining when an owner's property can be seized by law enforcement. To seize a home, police must now have evidence that the property was used in a crime and that the owner was aware of, and consented to, such use.

Prior to this ruling, a showing that it was more likely than not that the property owner was aware of, and gave consent to, the illegal activity was enough to allow seizure. Therefore, charges or a criminal conviction was not necessary to justify seizure. The accusation of a home owner's indirect criminal participation was adequate to allow imposition of the civil penalty.

The case involved a 72-year-old woman whose home and vehicle were seized after her son was arrested for selling marijuana from her home. She denied knowing that the drug dealing was taking place, having been ill at the time of his arrest. While the Court acknowledged the right of law enforcement to seize property used for illegal activity, it also asserted that the most exacting process is demanded before the government may seize one's home. For authorities to seize the woman's home, they must have been able to prove that the woman was not only aware of her son's illegal activity, but also that she consented to it.

The Court also addressed the potentiality that grossly disproportional seizures would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines imposed by the government. In this case, the woman's son was arrested for selling $140 worth of marijuana. The civil penalty imposed on the woman -- seizure of her home and her vehicle -- was therefore not in proportion to the underlying offense.

While penalties for criminal defendants whose property was an instrumentality of crime will remain the same, civil penalties -- particularly the seizure of one's home -- will need to be more carefully considered before imposition upon those indirectly related to the underlying criminal activity. In holding that the trial court did not sufficiently consider the circumstances and evidence pertaining to the woman's defense, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court strengthened Pennsylvania home owners' protections and imposed a higher standard of proof upon law enforcement in property seizures.

Source: Philly.com, "Pa. Supreme Court makes it harder for the D.A. to seize your home", Chris Mondics, May 26, 2017

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