Pa. Supreme Court overturns forfeitures for being excessive under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause and sets guidelines for considering an innocent owner defense

Commonwealth v. 1997 Chevrolet, 29 EAP 2015 and Commonwealth of Pa. v. 416 Sourth 62d Street, 30 EAP 2015

The Supreme Court affirmed Commonwealth Court rulings reversing seizures of a house and a car using civil in rem forfeiture proceedings. The Court found “the proper constitutional construct in determining whether an in rem forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment requires an initial determination regarding the relationship between the forfeited property and the underlying offense — the instrumentality prong. If this threshold prong is satisfied, the next step of the analysis is a proportionality inquiry in which the value of the property sought to be forfeited is compared to the gravity of the underlying offense to determine whether the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense.” The house and car was seized from a 71 year old grandmother was was bedridden with illness and whose son and some grandchildren lived with her. Her son was observed, during the course of an investigation, selling marijuana form the house and using the car to facilitate the sales, and when police searched the house, they found paraphernalia related to selling marijuana. He was arrested but the homeowner— his mother— was not charged with any crime. In rem forfeiture proceedings were started, and the forfeiture court rejected her innocent owner defense because it felt she had done nothing to stop the drug activity. The 73 page opinion concludes that a forfeiture court cannot simply reject on credibility grounds an innocent owner defense as grounds for seizing someone’s property— the record showed that the forfeiture court did not consider a great deal of evidence the owner offered. Forfeiture courts must recognize the difficult task property owner have to establish a negative— that they did not know of the illegal activity— and “identify the circumstances that make it reasonable to infer that the property owner had actual knowledge and did consent to the violation of the Drug Act.” This opinion is required reading for anyone mounting an innocent owner defense.

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