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Another House Taken, Another Reason Why We Should Repeal Drug Forfeiture Laws

Did you know your town can take your house if your kid is accused of selling pot -- even if he isn't convicted?
Another House Taken, Another Reason Why We Should Repeal Drug Forfeiture Laws
Image from: Google maps

These civil forfeiture laws are nothing but plunder against the poor in the name of the state, and this is a particularly egregious case. Philadelphia is about to knock possession of marijuana down to a misdemeanor, but our ambitious District Attorney is still going after cases like this? Shame on him, and shame on the craven legislative overreach that came up with this unconstitutional property grab. This poor woman suffered through the MOVE bombing (her house is on the corner of 62nd and Osage, the street that was in flames), and now the city drops another bomb on her:

Remember: No one even had to be convicted for this to happen!

At once tidy and stalwart, but pockmarked, too, with its share of boarded-up homes, Elizabeth Young's neighborhood in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia is the epitome of urban grit.

No one would mistake this tough patch of the city for a hotbed of real estate action. And yet the District Attorney's Office stands to make a pretty good return here.

On April 3, 2013, Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick ruled in favor of the D.A.'s Office and ordered Young, 69, a widow active in her church, to turn over her home to the city. The city had arrested her son and another man for the sale of small amounts of marijuana there, and then, under civil forfeiture statutes, moved to seize Young's home.

They were able to do this even though Young had never been accused of a crime, much less convicted. The loss of the home is no small thing, say her lawyers. She has been forced to stay with relatives. The house was appraised at $54,000, and it was her main asset.

That and her 1997 Chevrolet Venture minivan. The D.A.'s Office took that, too.

Young's case is now on appeal before Commonwealth Court. A three-judge panel originally heard the case in October, but in a sign of how seriously the court views the constitutional issues implicated by the seizure, a majority of its 11 justices decided to rehear the matter in May. It is expected to rule any day now on whether the seizure violated Young's constitutional protection against excessive fines under the Eighth Amendment.

Young's lawyers at the firm of Ballard Spahr, Jessica Anthony and Jason Leckerman, have no quarrel with the city's aggressive posture toward drug dealing. They say the concern is that in his zeal to push back against drug dealers, District Attorney Seth Williams is subjecting people to exceedingly harsh punishment for crimes that someone else committed.

In fact, under the law, there doesn't even have to be an underlying conviction for a civil forfeiture action to proceed.

"Civil forfeiture punishes property owners for someone else's wrongs," said Anthony. "That means individuals can lose their homes because a family member, friend, or even a stranger has been accused of using, storing or selling drugs in their home, even if no one gets convicted for the crime. The loss of one's home . . . is a harsh punishment."

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