Pa. Supreme Court ruling on civil asset forfeiture strengthens property owner protections

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LEBANON COUNTY, Pa. -- In a recent ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court strengthened protections for property owners, making it harder for law enforcement to seize property.

It stems from a court case out of Philadelphia which looks at civil asset forfeiture and what constitutes taking an owner's property.

Elizabeth Young is a grandmother who lost her house and minivan when her son was caught dealing marijuana from the home. She may get her house back, and the case set the standard for future civil asset forfeiture cases across the Commonwealth.

"There's going to be some greater accountability and transparency in how the money's being spent, but no, it will not affect them at all," said Senator Mike Folmer (R), Lebanon County.

In order to take an owner’s car or house, police must now have strong evidence proving it was used in a crime, and it must now be proven the owner was aware of the illegal activity or consented to the criminal use before law enforcement can seize the property.

"The Supreme Court set forth a little bit more guidance on standards that we should be following on determining when forfeiture should occur. I don't think that really is different than what's happening around Pennsylvania," said Lebanon County District Attorney, Dave Arnold.

Many times, law enforcement seizes and then sells property and use those funds to fuel their county's drug task force. Arnold isn't worried about future funding.

"I really don't know it's really going to have an impact on counties financially at all, to be honest with you, and I don't think it's going to have a big impact on Pennsylvania," said Arnold.

In the past, prosecutors had to show it was more likely than not the property owner was aware or consented to the illegal activity. Now, there must be proof.

"There'll be more accountability and transparency - so yes, this is definitely better than the status quo that is happening now in the State of Pennsylvania, but at the same time, it won't hamstring our district attorneys from being able to do their job." said Senator Folmer.

Part of the ruling states: "The home is where one expects the greatest freedom from governmental intrusion; it not only occupies a special place in our law, but the most exacting process is demanded before the government may seize it." Now, property owners, like Young, have additional protections to ensure they are not losing property without a conviction or any proven wrongdoing.