On March 23, 2016, the ACLU-PA, Community Legal Services, Philadelphia NAACP, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, SeniorLAW Center, and Philadelphia VIP filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of Elizabeth Young’s appeal of an order forfeiting her West Philadelphia home and 1997 minivan.
In 2010, the Philadelphia District Attorney sought to forfeit Ms. Young’s home and vehicle after arresting her adult son for four alleged sales of small amounts of marijuana. Ms. Young, who is 71, was in poor health at the time, and her son was living with her. The trial court found that the forfeiture of her home and vehicle was not constitutionally excessive because the value of her home and car were less than the maximum statutory fine that could theoretically have been imposed on her son for his drug offenses.
The ACLU-PA’s amicus brief describes the many ways in which Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws incentivize law enforcement to aggressively pursue forfeiture from the most vulnerable people in society. In Pennsylvania, law enforcement keeps 100% of the forfeiture proceeds, and the property owner doesn’t have to be convicted or even charged with a crime. In civil forfeiture proceedings, property owners lack the important procedural protections afforded to criminal defendants, such as the right to appointed counsel and the presumption of innocence.
The amicus brief also presents statistics demonstrating that in Pennsylvania, civil forfeiture is used disproportionately against low-income people of color. Like Ms. Young, many low-income people of color lose property through forfeiture each year not based on their own wrongdoing, but based on the alleged criminal activity of family members.
Amici also argue that the Excessive Fines Clause, found in both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, must be applied in a way that imposes meaningful limits on the government’s power to use civil forfeiture to punish people like Ms. Young. The amicus brief presents real estate value data to show that the trial court’s mechanical, one-dimensional approach to determining whether forfeiture is excessive would leave low-income Philadelphians without any Excessive Fines protection against forfeiture. Amici argue that courts should instead consider other factors, including the property owner’s culpability (as opposed to that of the person charged with a crime), the strength of the connection between the property and a crime, and whether forfeiture would leave the property owner homeless or deprive them of their livelihood or impose other harsh costs on the family members of people accused of crimes.