Wednesday, December 31, 2014

PA Commonwealth Court limits prosecutors' use of drug forfeitures

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has restricted the circumstances under which prosecutors can seize homes used by convicted drug dealers, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The 5-2 majority opinion by Commonwealth Court applies to homeowners who can show they had little or no involvement in the illegal activity.
The Commonwealth Court decision would establish sweeping new rules of evidence the city must meet if it is to prevail in some seizure cases. Those are cases involving parents or others who own homes used by drug dealers without the owners' knowledge or consent.
Seizures of properties by law enforcement have caused an outcry across the country because such civil forfeitures can move forward even if the homeowner has not been criminally convicted.
"My sense overall is that this decision will ensure a more rigorous constitutional analysis," said Jessica Anthony, who led the team of pro bono lawyers at Ballard Spahr that filed the appeal and argued the case.
Commonwealth Court said the lower-court judge erred by failing to properly consider whether the house was instrumental in drug dealing.
The ruling pointed out that the police had directed informants on multiple occasions to go to the house to purchase drugs, but that it was never established at trial whether the bulk of the activity was occurring there.
The appeals court, noting that a neighbor had testified that the house was not known as a locus of drug dealing, said law enforcement cannot rely on general claims of the harmfulness of drug dealing to society. In such proceedings, they must show that there are impacts within the immediate vicinity.
In addition, the court said, authorities must show a forfeiture penalty bears some relationship to the seriousness of the offense. The case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

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