PHILADELPHIA – In an ongoing effort to bolster due process protections in civil asset forfeiture, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed an amicus brief this week in support of Rafael Falette, who lost $34,440 after another person was arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs during a traffic stop in Monroe County. The case,Commonwealth v. $34,440 U.S. Currency, is currently before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
“This case is yet another example of how incredibly weak the due process protections are in civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The underlying crime was minor, and Rafael Falette had nothing to do with it. Yet the government has taken a tremendous amount of money from him.
“Our hope is that the state Supreme Court understands the significant implications of this case.”
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process in which the government takes and keeps property it claims is connected to crime. The forfeiture in this case originated from a traffic stop involving another person who had borrowed his sister’s car. After being pulled over for allegedly tailgating (an offense he was never charged with), the driver consented to a search of his vehicle. The search revealed small amounts of ecstasy and marijuana, and $34,440 of cash. The driver admitted that the drugs were his but said that he did not own the money.
Falette, the owner of the cash, was not present at the time of the traffic stop. When the government initiated forfeiture proceedings against the money, he intervened to demonstrate that he was an “innocent owner.” He provided proof that the money was from the settlement of a personal injury lawsuit and testified that he had stored it in his friend’s car, which he frequently borrowed, for safekeeping. The government did not rebut the evidence that Falette presented, but the trial court and Commonwealth Court ruled against him, anyway.
”The lower court rulings effectively gut two of the only protections against forfeiture available under current law to innocent people like Rafael Falette,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Unless the Supreme Court reverses, Pennsylvanians whose property is taken through forfeiture—almost none of whom are represented by counsel—will have a hell of a time getting any of it back in light of this case, even if they haven’t been charged with anything and can prove that their money had no connection to crime.
“We are still in desperate need of meaningful legislative reform to protect innocent people against forfeiture, but the lower courts managed to make the current legal protections even weaker than the legislature ever intended.”
The brief filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania is available at aclupa.org/falette.