In what the Philadelphia Inquirer calls a potentially precedent-setting decision, a Pennsylvania appeals court restricted the circumstances under which prosecutors can seize homes used by convicted drug dealers. The 5-2 opinion applies to homeowners who can show they had little or no involvement in illegal activity. The ruling in the case involving a 69-year-old Philadelphia widow, and the settlement of two seizure cases in a federal lawsuit Dec. 20, constitute twin setbacks for the city’s civil forfeiture program.
The 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 U.S. 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 the Ballard Spahr law firm that filed the appeal and argued the case. Anthony represented Elizabeth Young, a retired Amtrak employee whose home was ordered seized in 2012.