Commonwealth v. $34,440.00 U.S. Currency, Appeal of Rafael Falette

Amicus brief in support of person who lost the proceeds of a lawsuit settlement through civil asset forfeiture based on the low-level drug possession offense of another individual.

Court/Assoc.: Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Attorneys/Firms: Molly Tack-Hooper (ACLU-PA), Sandy Bilus, Patrick Hromisin, Andrew Bollinger (Saul Ewing LLP)

On January 23, 2017, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of Rafael Falette's appeal of an order forfeiting $34,440.

The case arises out of a 2009 interstate car stop by the Pennsylvania State Police. Although the driver was never charged with any traffic offense, he consented to a search of the vehicle, which turned up small amounts of marijuana and ecstasy, as well as $34,440 stored in the seatbelt column. The driver -- who was borrowing his sister's car -- admitted that the drugs were his, and was convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. However, he denied ownership of the cash. The commonwealth nonetheless filed a forfeiture petition against the cash, based solely on a statutory presumption that all money found in close proximity to drugs is the proceeds of drug trafficking or was used in drug trafficking. Mr. Falette intervened in the forfeiture case, presenting testimony and documents proving that the money was his, and was the proceeds of a lawsuit settlement, which he had stored in his friend's car.

The commonwealth did not present any evidence to rebut Mr. Falette's demonstration that money was his settlement award. However, the lower courts nonetheless rejected Mr. Falette's "innocent owner" defense and held that the commonwealth had met its burden of proving a nexus between the cash and a drug trafficking offense.

The ACLU-PA's amicus brief explains that the commonwealth's burden of proving that property is forfeitable by a preponderance of the evidence and the "innocent owner" defense are two of only a very few procedural protections against forfeiture available under Pennsylvania law. The ACLU-PA's brief argues that the lower court rulings in this case effectively render these protections meaningless for the thousands of innocent people like Mr. Falette -- disproportionately low-income people of color -- who are the victims of Pennsylvania's forfeiture practices.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, saying they should have considered the other evidence in the record, noting that there was no basis for presuming that the money was connected to drug trafficking.  

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